Post Date: June 10, 2005

New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer told an HLS Class Day audience today that self-regulation by corporations and financial institutions has been an “abject failure” and he warned graduating 3Ls not to succumb to hubris or the delusion that they are “Masters of the Universe.”

Spitzer, on campus to receive this year’s Cox, Richardson, Coleman Distinguished Alumnus award, assailed those who have called for less regulation of financial and other markets, saying many Wall Street bankers and financial players are convinced that they cannot be touched by law enforcement or held accountable for fraudulent or unethical conduct.

New York’s Attorney General since 1999, Spitzer has made a national name for himself in just six years as a crusader against corporate fraud on Wall Street and elsewhere in the financial sector. He is currently running for Governor of New York.

Introducing Spitzer before presenting the award, Dean Elena Kagan called him “the finest public servant in America today,” echoing similar praise by Reader’s Digest magazine last year.

The Cox, Richardson, Coleman award is given each year in honor of three of the Law School’s most distinguished alumni in public service: Professor and Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, former Attorney General Elliot Richardson and William T. Coleman, who served in the cabinet as secretary of transportation in the Ford administration. Coleman was on hand as Kagan presented the award to Spitzer.

Spitzer decried the “moral relativism” of corporate offenders who have tried to convince him not to prosecute them because their conduct was not as egregious as that of their competitors. “What they said to me was, ‘Eliot, you’re right, you’re right in what you allege, but we’re not as bad as our competitors.’ And that, they thought, was a defense!” he told the lunchtime assembly at Jarvis Field. “It was revealing to me because it was symbolic of where our ethical standards had gone. … Moral relativism was being used as an excuse to drop to the lowest common denominator time and time again. Nobody in any of these sectors ever said, ‘we have to stop.’ And that, to me, was very troublesome.”

“I think if you look at the CEOs and the others who have been involved in most of the corporate scandals … they began to think that somehow, the law didn’t reach them, the moral boundaries that every one of us understands didn’t apply to them. And this was captured in a brilliant t-shirt—and I don’t often end by quoting t-shirts, but it was given to me by an investment banker friend of mine, the last one I had—and on the front it said, ‘Hubris is terminal.’”

Related link:

Archived webcast of 2005 Class Day.