NEW YORK – Gov. Eliot Spitzer's political career teetered on the brink of collapse Monday after the corruption-fighting politician once known as "Mr. Clean" was accused of paying for a romp with a high-priced call girl.
The Democrat faced immediate calls to step down after a news conference in which a glassy-eyed Spitzer, his shellshocked wife at his side, apologized to his family and the people of New York.
"I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself," said the 48-year-old father of three teenage girls. "I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family."
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He did not discuss his political future and ignored shouted questions about whether he would resign. And he gave no details of what he was apologizing for.
But Spitzer was clearly examining his legal options; a spokesman said the governor had retained the Manhattan law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, one of the nation's biggest.
Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging to meet in a Washington hotel room the night before Valentine's Day with a prostitute from a call-girl business known as the Emperors Club VIP, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still going on.
The governor has not been charged, and prosecutors would not comment on the case.
But an affidavit based on the wiretap told of a man identified as "Client 9" — Spitzer, according to the law enforcement official — paying $4,300 in cash, some of it credit for future trysts, some of it for sex with a "petite, pretty brunette, 5-feet-5 inches, and 105 pounds," named Kristen.
The scandal came 16 months after Spitzer stormed into the governor's office with a historic margin of victory, vowing to root out corruption in New York government in the same way that he took on Wall Street executives with a vengeance while state attorney general.
But his first year in office was marred by turmoil, and the latest scandal raised questions about whether he would make it through the week.
"He has to step down. No one will stand with him," said Rep. Peter King, a Republican congressman from Long Island. "I never try to take advantage or gloat over a personal tragedy. However, this is different. This is a guy who is so self-righteous, and so unforgiving."
Democratic Assemblyman John McEneny said: "I don't think anyone remembers anything like this — the fact that the governor has a reputation as a reformer and there is a certain assumption as attorney general that you're Caesar's wife. It's a different element than if you were an accountant."
Democratic Lt. Gov. David Paterson would become New York's first black governor if Spitzer were to resign.
The allegations were outlined in papers filed in federal court in New York.
A defendant in the case, Temeka Rachelle Lewis, told a prostitute identified only as Kristen that she should take a train from New York to Washington for an encounter with Client 9 on the night of Feb. 13, according to the complaint. The defendant confirmed that the client would be "paying for everything — train tickets, cab fare from the hotel and back, mini bar or room service, travel time and hotel."
The prostitute met the client in Room 871 at about 10 p.m., according to the complaint. When discussing how the payments would be arranged, Client 9 told Lewis: "Yup, same as in the past, no question about it" — suggesting Client 9 had done this before.
According to court papers, an Emperors Club agent was told by the prostitute that her evening with Client 9 went well. The agent said she had been told that the client "would ask you to do things that ... you might not think were safe ... very basic things," according to the papers, but Kristen responded by saying: "I have a way of dealing with that ... I'd be, like, listen dude, you really want the sex?"
The next day, Spitzer testified before a congressional subcommittee about regulations on the bond industry.
The ring arranged sex between wealthy men and more than 50 prostitutes in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami, London and Paris, prosecutors said. Four people accused of helping to operate the ring were arrested last week.
The club's Web site displays photos of scantily clad women with their faces hidden. It also shows hourly rates, with prices set according to each woman's ratings, which range from one to seven diamonds. The highest-ranked prostitutes cost $5,500 an hour, prosecutors said.
"I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and violates my, or any, sense of right and wrong," Spitzer said at the news conference. "I apologize first and most importantly to my family. I apologize to the public, whom I promised better."
The case began as a financial investigation by Internal Revenue Service agents, and at some point was referred to the public corruption unit of the U.S. Attorney's office, authorities said. It was not clear from the authorities whether Spitzer was a target of the investigation from the start, or whether agents came his across his name by accident.
Prosecutors compiled statements from a confidential source and an undercover officer and examined more than 5,000 telephone calls and text messages and more than 6,000 e-mails, as well as bank, travel and hotel records.
The four people arrested were charged with violating the Mann Act, a 1910 federal law against crossing state lines for purposes of prostitution.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, noted that prostitution customers are often not charged, and said charges against Spitzer might be unlikely.
"Especially if he resigns, he may just be left alone. It may be that the public is satisfied by his resignation as governor," Tobias said.
Spitzer clashed with Wall Street executives throughout his two terms as attorney general. Among other things, he uncovered crooked practices and self-dealing in the stock brokerage and insurance industries and in corporate board rooms, and went after former New York Stock Exchange chairman Richard Grasso over his $187.5 million compensation package, calling it unreasonable.
He soon became known as the "Sheriff of Wall Street." Time magazine named him "Crusader of the Year," and the tabloids proclaimed him "Eliot Ness." The square-jawed graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law was sometimes mentioned as a potential candidate for president.
His campaign slogan during his run for governor was "Day One Everything Changes." But his term as governor has been fraught with problems, including an unpopular plan to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and a plot by his aides to smear his main Republican nemesis.
Spitzer had been expected to testify in front of a state commission he had created to answer for his role in the scandal, in which his aides were accused of using the state police to compile travel records to embarrass Senate GOP leader Joseph Bruno.
His cases as attorney general included a few criminal prosecutions of prostitution rings and tourism involving prostitutes. In 2004, he took part in an investigation of an escort service in New York City that resulted in the arrest of 18 people on charges of promoting prostitution and related charges.