Fewer Chances for Spitzer to Play Sheriff as Comptroller

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) -

Eliot Spitzer promises that if he gets elected New York City comptroller, he’ll reimagine the office, using about $80 billion in pension holdings to keep corporations straight and socially responsible.

The former New York governor wants to shake up the comptroller’s role in the same way he revamped the state attorney general’s office when he ran it from 1999 through 2006. Yet if elected, the former “Sheriff of Wall Street” will find that the comptrolleroffice lacks the firepower he had targeting banks as the state’s top law-enforcement officer.

He would have to share stewardship of five pension funds with 58 board members appointed by unions and other officials. He would also be working without the prosecutorial authority state law gave him as attorney general.

“The comptroller is not a Lone Ranger,” said Harrison Goldin, who held the post from 1974 to 1989. “The comptroller has to act in concert with others.”

Both Spitzer and his Democratic primary rival, Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, say they’ll revamp the way the comptroller audits city agencies, measuring a program’s performance against its goals, not just how an agency spends money.

“An audit should be done not only to ensure that the paper clips that we bought are delivered but also whether policies for which we are investing billions of dollars are in fact generating the results we want,” Spitzer said.

As attorney general and governor, Spitzer had a reputation for confrontation, not collaboration. He sued Merrill Lynch without informing the Securities and Exchange Commission and, as governor, he referred to himself as a “steamroller” who wouldn’t rule out campaigns against fellow Democrats.

As comptroller, Spitzer won’t be able to impose his will on the five boards that control the public pensions, whose assets are valued at about $140 billion.

When John Liu, the current comptroller, called for the pensions to sell their gun stocks following the shooting deaths of 20 children at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last year, the city’s police retirement fund refused.

Using the pensions to take more aggressive stands on environmental and social issues runs the risk of conflicting with the funds’ fiduciary duty to get the highest returns for retirees, said Ross Sandler, director for the Center for New York City Law.

“If climate change really matters, does that mean you can’t invest in Exxon or any gas or oil company, which pay good dividends?” Sandler said. “You’ve now raised the potential for a conflict.”