Why is New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer so feared by the state’s financial community? A major reason is a little-known piece of 1921 New York legislation called the Martin Act, aimed at financial fraud. “It empowers him to subpoena any document he wants from anyone doing business in the state; to keep an investigation totally secret or to make it totally public; and to choose between filing civil or criminal charges whenever he wants. People called in for questioning during Martin Act investigations do not have a right to counsel or a right against self-incrimination. Combined, the act’s powers exceed those given any regulator in any other state.
“Now for the scary part: To win a case, the AG doesn’t have to prove that the defendant intended to defraud anyone, that a transaction took place, or that anyone actually was defrauded. Plus, when the prosecution is over, trial lawyers can gain access to the hoards of documents that the act has churned up and use them as the basis for civil suits.” Important reading (Nicholas Thompson, “The sword of Spitzer”, Legal Affairs, May-June). Radley Balko comments (May 12), and see our Jan. 17 item. More on Spitzer’s financial enforcement: Dec. 17, 2003; Jun. 17-18 and Oct. 30-31, 2002; Mar. 31-Apr. 2, 2000.