'Client 9' Filmmaker Focuses On Spitzer's Foes As a crusading attorney general, Eliot Spitzer made powerful enemies -- before a sex scandal ended his political career. Filmmaker Alex Gibney explores the many adversaries Spitzer made on Wall Street in Client 9, a new documentary about the former governor's downfall.
NPR logo

'Client 9' Filmmaker Focuses On Spitzer's Foes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130978935/131069493" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Client 9' Filmmaker Focuses On Spitzer's Foes

'Client 9' Filmmaker Focuses On Spitzer's Foes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130978935/131069493" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In a world filled with political sex scandals, the fall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was among the most sensational. He resigned in 2008, after the FBI investigated a prostitution ring and it emerged that Spitzer was a regular client, spending tens of thousands of dollars on call girls.

For the new documentary about Spitzer, the director, our guest Alex Gibney, spoke to nearly all the players in the Spitzer drama, including Spitzer himself and the madam of his high-priced escort service.

(Soundbite of film, "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer")

Unidentified Woman #1: He was hiding. He didn't want anyone to know who he was. He was extremely paranoid. He knew that his entire political career was on the line, and ultimately, vice just took over virtue. He could not control himself.

GROSS: But Gibney's new film, "Client 9," says there's more to the Spitzer story than sex. As state attorney general and then governor, Spitzer made powerful enemies on Wall Street and in Albany. Gibney's new film explores the possibility that they may have had a hand in Spitzer's demise, and Gibney manages to get many of Spitzer's adversaries on camera, making for some memorable moments.

Alex Gibney has directed documentaries about Jack Abramoff, the Enron scandal and the lives of Jimi Hendrix and Hunter Thompson. He won an Oscar for his 2007 documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," about abuses in the war on terror.

Alex Gibney spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Well, Alex Gibney, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us a little bit about Eliot Spitzer's background, his, you know, formative influences.

Mr. ALEX GIBNEY (Director, "Client 9"): Well, he was to the manor born. I mean, his father was a real estate tycoon. He grew up, you know, in luxury. He went to the Horace Mann prep school. He went to Princeton as an undergraduate, Harvard Law. He interned, I guess you could say, for Alan Dershowitz.

His pedigree was extraordinary, and I think he came out of that experience, you know, determined to be one of the best and brightest.

DAVIES: He appears on camera I gather you taped several interviews with him, in which he talked about not only his, you know, work as attorney general and governor but also about the very delicate matter of him going to an escort service. Was it hard to get him there? Were there things that he wanted, assurances that he wanted before he would agree to an interview?

Mr. GIBNEY: The only deal that we made was that if we discovered anything that was new, that hadn't been known before, that we would share it with him ahead of time. And I say we. The we in this case was myself and Peter Elkind. Peter Elkind wrote the book, and he and I were working together, kind of reporting this story. Peter was going to write his book. I was going to do my movie. But we kind of shared reporting duties.

And Peter had known Eliot Spitzer before this. He had known him at Princeton and also done a number of profiles of him for Fortune magazine. So we went in as a pair.

And it took us a long time to get in the door. At first, there were the gatekeepers. And also, Eliot Spitzer was under the cloud of federal investigation, right on up to a few days after the election of 2008. I found that timing interesting.

But after that, we, you know, we pressed hard. And I think over time, we were able to make a pretty good argument to him that in order for him to move forward, he would have to reckon with the past. And I think he knew that we were going to do the story anyway and that he wanted to have his say. So that's how it ultimately went out. But there was really no deal in terms of what we could or couldn't tackle.

DAVIES: Now, it's clear from the perspective of the film that he had, in pursuing corruption on Wall Street and fighting for his agenda in Albany, made enemies, which might have had something to do with all this. But it's also very clear that he wasn't framed, and he wasn't entrapped. He used an expensive service, the Emperor's Club, and you managed to get the woman who operated it to talk to you, Cecil Suwal.

Mr. GIBNEY: Cecil Suwal, that's right.

DAVIES: I thought we'd just listen to just a bit of her description. She and a partner kind of ran this high-priced escort service, and here she they had a website in which the women available were ranked by, you know, two diamonds, three diamonds, four diamonds, five diamonds. And here she is just talking a little bit about the services they offered.

(Soundbite of film, "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer")

Ms. CECIL SUWAL: My primary focus at the time was to promote the website to the right people, to the right kinds of girls, who - the kind who, you know, are well-educated and come from good families.

The number of diamonds that the model had indicated not only her hourly and daily rates but also just the general quality of companionship you could expect from her. So if she was three diamonds, her daily rate would be $10,000, and her hourly rate would be $1,000. It went: $1,000, $1,200, $1,500, $2,100, $3,100. And then the day rates, you would just add a zero.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUWAL: I did that with mathematical precision, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUWAL: Whatever. Just add a zero. That should work.

DAVIES: And that's Cecil Suwal, who ran the escort service that Eliot Spitzer used in the documentary by our guest, Alex Gibney. Was it hard to get her to talk about this?

Mr. GIBNEY: It was hard. And we just managed to get her just before she went into the federal penitentiary in Danbury. And I think, you know, she had been trying to peddle her book, and I think finally she decided she wasn't having much luck with that. She wanted to have her say before she went to prison.

And we were able to shoot quite a long interview with her, and I have, you know, a pretty grizzled crew. They've kind of heard it all. But after that interview, I think everyone there was a moment of silence.

DAVIES: So she explained that, you know, what they did was, you know, it was a very high-priced escort service. And when the scandal broke, everybody knew about Ashley Dupre, who was the woman who I guess the FBI had actually really focused on the particular liaison, in which they caught Spitzer. But you learned that she actually was not the woman in the service who he dealt with most frequently, right?

Mr. GIBNEY: That's correct. I mean, and it's really astounding to think of it because we all thought of Ashley Dupre that way. I mean, we figured she was the gal. In fact, in many cases, she's referred to by mainstream media outlets as the love gov's gal or Spitzer's gal, as if somehow she was a kind of regular person for Eliot Spitzer.

Nothing could have been further from the fact. In fact, she was not the star of the story. She turns out to have been something of a bit player, a kind of somebody who was waiting in the wings and just happened to be on call one night.

The thing that's significant about her from a law enforcement perspective, as you say, is that she happened to be caught on a wiretap. The federal government was wiretapping Cecil Suwal's operation and caught Kristen calling in to the booker Kristen was Ashley's name at the time. Her name - what would you say -nom de plume, her working title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right. Now, you did track down the woman who was who most frequently serviced Eliot Spitzer from the escort service. And you got well, talk about how you got her to agree to talk and under what conditions.

Mr. GIBNEY: I managed to find out what her real name was, and I managed to arrange a meeting with her. She agreed to talk on one condition, which was that I not reveal her identity or her voice but that if I agreed to that that she would talk at length. And she did do that.

She and I sat for two very long audio-taped interviews. Then I transcribed those interviews, and I hired an actress to perform her role in the film. The trope, the standard way to do this is to sit the subject in front of a bright light so that that person's face falls into shadow and then to metallically alter their voice.

We tried a variant of this in the cutting room, and it was just awful because it made Angelina is the name that we chose to call her. It made Angelina sound like a monster or somebody from the witness protection program, some mobster who had been involved with some hit. You know, it just, it didn't represent who she really was, and I found her to be a very affecting, interesting character.

So it seemed that hiring an actress to play her, using the very words that she used, would be a way that was somehow more truthful than doing it the other way.

DAVIES: Right, and this was, of course, all fully disclosed in the film. You know that you're not seeing the real Angelina. You're seeing an actress performing her words.

Let's listen to just a little bit of her. This is a moment where she's talking about when the FBI had, in fact, busted the escort service, and they were interrogating her.

(Soundbite of film, "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer")

Ms. WRENN SCHMIDT (Actor): (As Angelina) They pressured me like they do on TV. They said: We know you worked for this agency, and we want you to look at some pictures and tell us if you recognize anyone. And I did that.

And Eliot Spitzer was in there, and I said yes, I recognized him, and yes, I had seen him. And I said: Should I maybe have a lawyer? And they said well, we want to keep this confidential.

The main thing about that meeting was that they were very insistent and pressuring me in an uncomfortable way, you know, for me to admit that I had sex with Eliot Spitzer. You know, why him, and why not anyone else?

DAVIES: That's actress Wrenn Schmidt, performing the words of the prostitute who had liaisons with Eliot Spitzer. That's from the documentary by our guest, Alex Gibney. It's called "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer."

Now, she of course told you things which would be of a lot of salacious interest, but there are also details that she provided which go to the credibility of some of the players in the drama that we'll get to later.

And I'm just wondering, since you're talking to people in some cases here who were involved in an illegal enterprise, how do you know you're not being taken? How do you corroborate what they're telling you?

Mr. GIBNEY: It's hard. But one of the things we were able to do was to check her recollections against the official governor's record. So we would ask her for dates and places, and then we would match it up with Eliot Spitzer's travel schedule, for example. That was one way of corroborating.

Also, we had other people inside the escort service who could give us details and without, you know, sharing that information with the various people we were talking to, we used that information to see who was on the mark and who was telling us the truth.

And one of the things that was interesting to us about Angelina was that everything she said checked out. That is to say, the details that she gave us always matched up with the official record. So we were pretty certain she was telling us the truth.

Also, a lot of the details that she provided us about the escort service were also corroborated by others in the escort service. So there were some details that we couldn't corroborate, but we felt that she was such a good witness by that time that we were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, particularly her details about the federal investigation.

DAVIES: We're speaking with documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. His latest is called "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer."

Folks who aren't from New York might not realize just how big a deal Eliot Spitzer was when all of this happened. I mean, he was truly a rising star in the Democratic Party, had - was elected governor in 2006 with an overwhelming majority. And then, of course, he undermined it all by using this escort service. How often did he use it, over how long a period of time? Do we know?

Mr. GIBNEY: We think it started we're fairly certain it started around March of 2006, while he was still attorney general of New York. And it continued right until the end, which was March of 2008, so about two years. And he spent over $100,000.

DAVIES: Wow. Well, of course, in your interviews, you asked him why he did it, and I thought we might listen to a moment here where you posed the question, you know, if you had needs, why let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "Client 9")

Mr. GIBNEY: In what seems to be a kind of epidemic of, you know, political figures in sex scandals, one question is: Why, you know, why hookers? I mean, why, particularly when that's, you know, illegal?

Mr. ELIOT SPITZER (Former Democratic Governor, New York): Again, I don't want to delve into certainly don't want to speak for others, and even in my own case, don't really want to speak to that issue except to say that you cave to temptations in a way that perhaps seems easier and perhaps is, in some very twisted way, less damaging.

DAVIES: That's Eliot Spitzer, and he goes on to explain that what he means is that might be less damaging to his marriage than a sexual relationship that involves real intimacy.

Do you feel like you understand why he did this?

Mr. GIBNEY: I'm not sure I entirely understand why he did it. I mean, in some fundamental way, we can all understand why he did it. I mean, sex is not something that is always attached to the brain.

I think what was shocking and surprising in this instance was you had a guy who was governor of New York state, who had prosecuted escort services, and who was on his way to becoming president of the United States.

In some ways, I think, you know, Eliot Spitzer as a character was one who was very good at compartmentalizing and had made a kind of rational decision that in order to take control of his sexual urges, he was going to see prostitutes, and that would not in any way jeopardize the emotional relationship that he had with his wife.

But it's hard to imagine that he didn't think he would get caught in some way, shape or form. And the other thing he knew very clearly was that he had some very, very powerful enemies who wanted him to fall, and this was courting danger in the most extreme way possible.

DAVIES: And, you know, I guess it's a measure of how carefully he considered the political danger and his ability to compartmentalize that although he spent $100,000 on this activity, he was careful never to use any public or campaign funds doing it.

Mr. GIBNEY: That's correct. I mean, I think the one thing that you'd have to say about Eliot Spitzer, too, was that he very consciously tried to separate this from his public life.

If you look at some other figures, notably, say, Bill Clinton or John Ensign or Mark Sanford, you know, their extracurricular activities were very much a part of their public job. They didn't find a way to separate church and state, so to speak. Eliot Spitzer did. He used his own money. He did it on his own time.

And so purely from a public policy perspective, you'd have to say, well, this is not something that was corrupt in that sense. He wasn't taking money from us, or the treasury of New York, to do what he wanted to do. This was something he was doing on his own time.

DAVIES: Well, the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal exploded into public view I guess in March, 2008, and he very quickly resigned as governor. I want to now look back at some of the enemies he made when he was attorney general, attacking, you know, Wall Street corruption and white collar crime in New York.

One of the folks that he crossed swords with was Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot. He was on the board of the New York Stock Exchange. Why did Spitzer focus on him?

Mr. GIBNEY: He focused on him because he was the head of the Compensation Committee. And the Compensation Committee of the New York Stock Exchange had awarded a titanic amount of money to the guy who was running the place, Dick Grasso(ph), including, I believe it was $140 million in a kind of retirement package.

And Eliot Spitzer had a view about the attorney general's office that he was not only going to prosecute crimes, he was going to try to see if he could engender some kind of systemic change, that he felt things had gotten way out of balance in terms of the way insiders on Wall Street seemed to be feathering their own nests to the expense of everybody else.

And so he tackled this issue of executive compensation through his authority as attorney general in terms of his ability to regulate nonprofits.

The New York Stock Exchange at the time was a not-for-profit corporation. And there is a law that says, you know, you cannot have excessive compensation in a not-for-profit corporation. So he went after Dick Grasso and Ken Langone, and Ken Langone took great umbrage at that.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's interesting, you know, that Spitzer wanted Grasso, who'd gotten this fortune, to repay $100 million of it. But that wasn't going to cost Langone anything. But he seems to have developed a deep-seated hatred of Spitzer as a result of all this.

Mr. GIBNEY: I think he had a deep-seated hatred of Spitzer for a couple of reasons. One is because he singled Langone out, and Langone felt he hadn't done anything wrong, and number two because I think, you know, Langone believes that businessmen engage in business and shouldnt be interfered with by people like Eliot Spitzer.

So for those two reasons, he felt that there was no way that he was going to let Eliot Spitzer tell him what to do.

DAVIES: In any event, we had a situation where because of his aggressive prosecution, the kinds of work that gave Spitzer the nickname The Sherriff of Wall Street, he'd made big enemies with this Ken Langone, who was on the board of the New York Stock Exchange, and Hank Greenberg, who had been chairman of AIG.

And one other issues that I think that the film raised as well is Spitzer's temperament. And I think it's well-illustrated by a clip I want to play. This involved John Whitehead, another executive from Goldman Sachs, who is angry about Spitzer's statements about Hank Greenberg and had written a critical op-ed piece. And in this piece, we're going to hear him and Spitzer talking about a phone call that Spitzer made to Whitehead, angry about the article he'd written. Let's listen. Whitehead speaks first.

(Soundbite of film, "Client 9")

Mr. JOHN WHITEHEAD (Former Chairman and CEO, Goldman Sachs): He asked me a couple of questions about my article, and then he came right to the point. He said: Mr. Whitehead, he said, you and I are now at war.

Mr. SPITZER: You know, look, he had written an I don't know if I said those words or not. He - if that's the worst I said, you know, okay that's people are at war with me all the time.

Mr. GIBNEY: You have fired the first bullet.

Mr. WHITEHEAD: You have fired the first bullet, but believe me, by the end of this war, I will fire the last one, and you will be dead.

Mr. SPITZER: Well, I don't think I said that. I mean, John I wouldn't say. Look, I hope I didn't say that.

Mr. WHITEHEAD: He was screaming into the phone.

Mr. SPITZER: He and I had a heated conversation. I will leave it at that. It was a private conversation. As I've said, I've never denied that I have heated conversations in private. It's you know, it was me, it is me. So be it. And I think sometimes it's how you get things done.

DAVIES: And that's Eliot Spitzer and another business executive, John Whitehead, from interviews that are in the documentary by our guest, Alex Gibney. It's called "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer."

What you can clearly hear there is that Spitzer is a man who is aggressive, who can create not just adversaries but sworn enemies.

Mr. GIBNEY: Well, I think in many ways, he was a bully. and this is one of the worst episodes, frankly, of Eliot Spitzer's attorney general period. You know, there was no reason for him to go off on John Whitehead. John Whitehead had written an op-ed piece, but Eliot Spitzer felt that he was entitled to go off on him.

And it showed also a kind of temperamental issue with him. I mean, one some of his staffers referred to these temper tantrums, these outbursts, as the appearance of Eliot Spitzer's evil twin Irwin(ph). So, you know, it was not the only time it happened.

GROSS: Film director Alex Gibney will talk more with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Gibney's new documentary is called "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with film director Alex Gibney about his new documentary "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer." It examines the sex scandal that forced Spitzer to resign from his position as governor of New York. The film also looks at some of the enemies he made as New York state attorney general and governor.

DAVIES: So we have Spitzer, who's made enemies on Wall Street, Ken Langone and Hank Greenberg. And then in 2006, he's elected governor and goes into Albany promising reform and clashes with the state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who is a real character. Tell us about that conflict, what they fought over.

Mr. GIBNEY: Well, I think, you know, Eliot Spitzer had a view of government that you lay out the issues and you debate them rationally, because over time you can have a kind of debate and try to determine what is right and what is wrong. Joe Bruno took a, let's call it a more pragmatic view of politics. Ultimately, he would be convicted of corruption. But I think his view was much more the traditional Paul's view, which is - what is in it for me?

And, at the same time, Joe Bruno also had a great sense of personal relationships - that politics is relationships, and to some extent you need to make friends and make deals and make compromises in order to make the wheels of government work. You have to - that's the grease you put into the wheels of government. Eliot Spitzer felt there should be a right and there should be a wrong, somebody's going to win the argument and someone's going to lose, and inevitably they were going to clash.

DAVIES: And Bruno who, you know, maybe practiced a certain kind of transactional politics, you know, we'll take care of each other, we'll cut a deal, said that basically Spitzer was a steamroller, wanted to just win, destroy him.

Mr. GIBNEY: This conflict between Bruno and Spitzer ultimately blew up in something called the Troopergate episode, in which Eliot Spitzer's office, responding to a request for public documents - released documents having to do with Bruno's travel. And the question was whether Bruno was using the public plane and the public car to basically go to fundraising events, which I think was proven pretty distinctively that he was. But Joe Bruno, in a very clever about face, managed to portray that as if Eliot Spitzer was somehow spying on him. And that became the focus of this whole Troopergate episode, Eliot Spitzer abusing executive power to spy on Joe Bruno.

And in part, he was able in a kind of very clever political jujitsu to use Spitzer's aggressiveness against him and to make it appear that somehow he was doing something untoward, when in fact, really, it was a leak to a reporter, which is pretty common in politics, but Spitzer suffered mightily, politically for it.

DAVIES: So we have a situation where Eliot Spitzer, while governor, uses an escort service, gets caught in a federal probe. We also know he's made powerful enemies on Wall Street and in the state legislature. And the question that the film raised, that others have, is whether this was a case of selective prosecution, whether Spitzer's enemies got to him in effect and used his own weaknesses and sins to undo him.

Let's start with the government's explanation of how they got on to this prostitution ring in the first place and Spitzer's involvement. How do they say they got on to the case?

Mr. GIBNEY: Through a SAR, which is called a Suspicious Activities Report. It's something that's filed, that was filed by Spitzer's bank, the North Fort Bank, relating to a request that he had to leave his name off of a wire transfer. And the government claims that it was that SAR which led them to investigate the Emperor's Club VIP or Eliot Spitzer.

I mean, this is where it gets a little bit tricky because, in fact, the investigation was never really Eliot Spitzer. They decided that what they were going to do in order to investigate Eliot Spitzer was to investigate the Emperor's Club, you know, the wire transfer from the SAR sent money to an organization called QAT Consulting, which was the front name for C.C. Suwal's Emperor's Club.

DAVIES: Right. And what was at issue here was that Spitzer, this was a very expensive service he was getting from these call girls, it was many thousands of dollars, and it's tricky to pay that kind of money. And so that generated these wire transactions. There are, what, 3,000 a day I think that are reported to the government since the Patriot Act because people want to keep track of cash moving around because there might be terrorist activity connected to it.

So the Feds get on to this and they pay attention to this suspicious activity report, so they say, and open an investigation and discover that the shell company is in fact connected to this escort service. What's unusual about the federal prosecution of this particular crime?

Mr. GIBNEY: Well, it's very unusual for the federal government to go after a kind of small-time escort service. It's almost unprecedented. The federal government still goes after trafficking, you know, services that are basically trafficking in young underage women. But to go after a small escort service it's almost always a state issue. They almost never go after it.

And also, there is a kind of guideline written in the federal code which says the federal government will not prosecute Johns or customers. This goes way back because the Mann Act, which is the act that is the applicable statute here, is a much discredited act. It was used to go after Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry and others. You know, you cannot take a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. That's the original language of the act or something close to it. So everything in the federal guidelines says that this is something that the federal government should not be interested in, in any way, shape or form.

DAVIES: Okay. So the federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York who have organized crime and terrorism and everything, drug running and everything else to work to...

Mr. GIBNEY: To Wall Street.

DAVIES: ...to work on or not work on, they do have the wherewithal to seek a court order to get wiretaps on this escort service. They actually use a surveillance team, I believe, on the Eliot Spitzer trip to Washington to meet with Ashley Dupre. A pretty extensive investigation. Now one of the comparisons that's made in the film is that to the D.C. Madam case - the Washington D.C. Madam case. What are some comparisons that you would make to the way that case was prosecuted as opposed to this one?

Mr. GIBNEY: Well, there was an investigation into the D.C. Madam, but there was very little investigation into David Vitter. Senator David Vitter was, you know, his name was revealed as being one of the clients of the D.C. Madam's escort service. But there was no further investigation of David Vitter. In fact, the federal government went to great lengths to say, oh, we're not interested in the customers in any way, shape or form.

And so in that way I think there's a fundamental distinction with what went on with Eliot Spitzer, because it's clear that the only reason the federal government was investigating C.C. Suwal's Emperor's Club was because it had one very important customer and that was Eliot Spitzer. So in that sense the investigations were completely different.

DAVIES: Our guest is documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. We'll talk more after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. His new film about the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal is called "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer."

Now in the end, of course, Spitzer wasnt prosecuted. He was exposed by this and then resigned in shame from his office. But he was exposed not technically by the government. I mean, the government in its affidavit of probable cause did not mention Eliot Spitzer by name. They called him Client 9, hence that's the title of your documentary. But what did they do in that affidavit that was unusual and that contributed to him being exposed?

Mr. GIBNEY: That affidavit is a magnificent document. And, you know, this film is kind of a mystery story. But that affidavit itself is written like a Raymond Chandler mystery thriller. And there's, you know, one or two sentences on Clients 1 to 8 and Client 10, but five riveting pages on Client number 9, which really have nothing to do - or, you know, which are way over the top in terms of, you know, trying to prove a criminal case against the Emperor's Club.

In my view, what is there in that wonderful mystery-thriller story of that affidavit are all sorts of clues that would lead reporters to find out who is Client 9, that is to say its Eliot Spitzer.

And, you know, in addition to the affidavit there were a number of rather big federal leaks in this matter, not only to The New York Times, but also to the Albany Times Union, to CBS and others, where they try to help people connect the dots. People were called and said you really should focus on this Client 9 and it's a very powerful political figure. You might want to think about that. So there were a lot of clues.

Now at the same time, The New York Times, you know, rightly won a Pulitzer for doing a lot of very good shoe leather work. You know, there was a room number in the affidavit, 871. Well, The New York Times found out which hotels in Washington, D.C. had a room 871 and they slowly put the pieces together. But I think that document, along with the testimony of Angelina and some of the other irregularities in the case, show that what the federal government was trying to do was to use the prosecution of the Emperor's Club as a way of publicly embarrassing Eliot Spitzer.

DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, the affidavit seems very curious, that you would have that kind of detail on one client. I did notice, you said that there were these federal leaks - federal prosecutors or investigators leaking information. How do you know that it was the feds that leaked this material?

Mr. GIBNEY: It was their investigation. It would be - who else - you know, if the federal government is conducting the investigation, who else is making the leaks?

DAVIES: Well, you know, as a reporter who's covered quite a few federal corruption investigations in my time, I mean, I've often been in situations where people assumed that the feds are leaking material. And in some cases I even know that it wasn't the feds because in some cases they were my stories, and what happens is that when there is an investigation like that, there are other people involved who know things. In this case, there were four people in the escort service who were prosecuted, there were other people who were witnesses, all of them have lawyers, many of those folks have relationships with reporters, so I'm not sure that you can so readily conclude that it was the feds leaking.

Mr. GIBNEY: It's possible, but I mean, they were rather explicit. There was -we know about, for example, a rather unusual trip by an FBI agent up to Albany to give advance notice to the state police that something was coming down over the weekend. It seemed a very unusual. And also, the manner in which the affidavit itself was sent, I believe to the Albany Times Union, indicated that it was likely a federal leak.

Now, there was an internal investigation conducted. Nothing so far as I know was discovered, so we don't know for sure, but it certainly seems like it probably was to me. Now it's also true that Eliot Spitzer was a very big public figure. It's possible that it could've just come out. But the way that it came out and the manner in which it came out in such a hurry speaks to that. And I think the other piece of evidence that was convincing to me was the questioning of Angelina. Weve spoke about Angelina before. And...

DAVIES: That's the escort who was with Eliot Spitzer so much. Right.

Mr. GIBNEY: That's correct. And she was of particular interest to the federal government because she applied to the Mann Act. That is to say, she traveled across state lines to see Eliot Spitzer. She traveled to Puerto Rico. She traveled to Florida. She traveled to Dallas. And so that, you know, where there was an applicability of the Mann Act there.

But according to Angelina, a lot of the federal questioning of her related very much to what kind of - you know, were there any kind of weird sexual practices that she and Eliot Spitzer were engaged in behind closed doors? And you have to ask, is that the purpose of the Mann Act, to find out what kind of sex Eliot Spitzer's having with Angelina? Or is the purpose of that line of questioning to embarrass Eliot Spitzer?

DAVIES: The other fascinating question is, what about Eliot Spitzer's enemies from Wall Street and Albany and what role they might have had? Let's talk Ken Langone. He was the guy on the stock exchange who so bitterly resented Eliot Spitzer's investigation when he was attorney general. Is there any reason to believe that he was in any way involved in this scandal?

Mr. GIBNEY: Well, there's a couple of things, and it's circumstantial evidence, and we don't know for sure. I mean, Ken Langone and Hank Greenberg had a record of using PR firms and sometimes private investigators to find out stuff about Eliot Spitzer. They always maintain it was related to political stuff not private stuff. But nevertheless, there was a record of that.

And then there's this rather bizarre statement by Ken Langone on the very day that Eliot Spitzer was discovered to have visited escort services. He says, oh, by the way, I have a friend who was behind Eliot Spitzer in the post office when he bought an $1,800 money order to pay for the prostitute. It's kind of a remarkable statement if you think about it.

First of all, Ken Langone who is a billionaire, I'm not sure how many friends of his actually spend time in post offices, number one. But number two, the idea that his friend happened to be directly behind Eliot Spitzer, craning his neck over Eliot Spitzer's shoulders so that he could see the amount on the money order and knew that it was going to the hooker the very day after the scandal is announced, raised a lot of eyebrows.

DAVIES: Yeah, that was really weird. A pretty bizarre coincidence. And you get Langone, he's interviewed for the documentary and he said it was a gift from God, right? He...

Mr. GIBNEY: Correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBNEY: It's God at work.

DAVIES: That...

Mr. GIBNEY: Heres another one - here is a little more for you, he said.

DAVIES: So you can make a case that there was an unusual focus by the government on Eliot Spitzer in a prostitution ring, not the kind of thing federal prosecutors usually bother with. And although Spitzer's enemies in this case all deny it, it seems possible that they may have in some way tipped the government to the existence of this scandal. If that's true, put yourself in the position of a federal prosecutor who gets information that a sitting governor who, as attorney general, prosecuted a prostitution ring, is now engaged in illegal prostitution, wouldn't you as a prosecutor kind of have to pursue that?

Mr. GIBNEY: Well, I'm not sure. I think if - frankly, if I'm a federal prosecutor and the federal statutes don't apply, I refer it to the relevant state authorities unless there's some persuasive reason why or there's some evidence - which there wasn't, as the federal government later admitted - that Eliot Spitzer was in any way shape or form using government funds, was in fact being corrupt, using government funds to further this illegal activity. So they found out pretty quickly that he was using his own money. So I find it actually pretty unpersuasive.

Now, I do find it perfectly reasonable that The New York Times would want to find out about this. And I do find it, you know, persuasive that in fact, Eliot Spitzer broke New York state law. But why the federal government pursued the Emperor's Club so assiduously in this case when they weren't so interested in the senators who used the D.C. Madam's escort service, it speaks to a kind of double standard it seems to me.

And I think that the federal government, with all of its power, has to be very careful about when and how they go after people, because otherwise you do run into this issue of at what point the power of the Department of Justice is being used for political purposes. And after all, we have to admit that at this moment in time, you know, the Bush Department of Justice was under siege for using the Department of Justice in precisely that over-the-top political way.

DAVIES: I wonder if we might ought to at the end get Eliot Spitzer's view on whether he thinks his enemies were involved in his downfall. Why don't we listen to that little part of the film.

(Soundbite of film, "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer")

Mr. SPITZER: There are all sorts of rumors about their helping, or taking credit occasionally, for bringing me down. My view is I brought myself down, and I will not try to blame others or excuse my behavior. I did what I did and shame on me. If they were involved in unearthing it, okay. So be it. That isn't my concern right now.

DAVIES: That's Eliot Spitzer from the film "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" by our guest Alex Gibney.

What's your sense of what he really thinks about all this?

Mr. GIBNEY: Well, I think he said it. I mean I think the point is that that's why this is a kind of a Greek tragedy. This is a guy who had a fatal flaw, who was beset by his enemies, but at the end of the day falls because of that fatal flaw. And really he has no one to blame but himself. So we can talk about a lot of the irregularities in terms of the federal investigation, we can talk about the fact that his enemies pursued him and wanted to take him out, but at the end of the day, the only person that Eliot Spitzer has to blame for his downfall is himself.

DAVIES: Well, Alex Gibney, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GIBNEY: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Alex Gibney spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Gibney's new documentary is called "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer."

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Taylor Swift's new album. It was released last week and already sold over a million copies. That's pretty impressive during this rough time for the music industry.

This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.