ALBANY, N.Y. - Of all the wisecracks heard in the marble halls of New York's Capitol after Eliot Spitzer's downfall in a call-girl scandal, one jest enlightened as much as it stung: The former governor's got to be the only guy in Albany who pays for sex.
It is an open secret that there is a lot of fooling around going on at the state house. And at other state houses, too.
Governor David Paterson, in an extraordinary news conference on Tuesday, his first full day on the job after taking over from Spitzer, acknowledged he had had extramarital affairs with a number of women while he was a state senator.
At night legislators, young staffers, lobbyists, and reporters mix at two or three bars just blocks from the Capitol. And there are numerous receptions, campaign stops, and caucuses where lawmakers often have opportunities for sexual liaisons.
The hanky-panky even has its own lexicon: There's the "Bear Mountain Compact," which says that what goes on north of the state park just outside New York City stays there. Lobbyists, staffers, and reporters who seek to enhance their influence by bedding powerful lawmakers are known as "big game hunters." And the men who sleep with the female lawmakers are "boy toys."
"Unfortunately, many of the people who seek public office are flawed people to begin with, and the environment in Albany just tends to bring that out," said Paul Clyne, former district attorney in Albany.
Up until a few years ago, lawmakers would go "window shopping" for interns at the start of every legislative session. In a practice that went on for decades, the interns would be corralled in a Capitol newsstand, and legislators would take their pick.
In 2004 Clyne issued a scathing report on the internship program, famously saying he would never let his daughter become an intern. The report led to changes in the program, including an end to fraternization between lawmakers and interns outside the office.
"There was a lot hitting on us and boundaries being crossed," said one female lobbyist who was part of that scene for years.
In truth, the phenomenon is not new, and it's not confined to Albany. By many accounts, the same thing goes on at other state capitals, particularly where the state house is far from the main population centers and lawmakers stay overnight several times a week. Men and women outside politics are prone to some of the same behavior when they go on business trips.
"One of the things about Washington and every state capital is for some people it's like going to a convention," said state Assemblyman John McEneny. "What happens is you get individuals who would not behave the same way if they had the disapproval of friends and neighbors keeping an eye on them."
In Colorado, state representative Michael Garcia resigned this year after a female lobbyist accused him of sexual misconduct at a bar. He said he engaged in "consensual" but "inappropriate" conduct. And Washington state representative Richard Curtis resigned this year after he was accused of stopping at an adult bookstore, picking up a man, and bringing him to his hotel room for sex. Curtis refused to pay, and he claimed the man and his associates tried to blackmail him by threatening to expose the married lawmaker. In 2005, Arkansas state representative Dwayne Dobbins resigned and pleaded guilty to harassment after he was accused of fondling a 17-year-old girl at his home.
Accusations of sex and politics have taken down congressmen and senators, and nearly brought down President Clinton in 1998. A sex scandal was the undoing of New Jersey governor James E. McGreevey in 2004, and another derailed Colorado senator Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign.
"It really is not anything new," said Tom Fiedler, who covered Hart's downfall as a reporter with the Miami Herald and is now a visiting lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "I would have no reason to believe any public officer is any less susceptible to temptations of the flesh than any one who is not in public office."
But the New York state capital seems to have an outsize history of sexual conduct and misconduct.
Last week, Spitzer's career collapsed just days after the 48-year-old married man was identified by federal authorities as Client 9 of a prostitution ring.
Other Albany cases include Michael Boxley, the chief lawyer for the speaker of the Assembly, who was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs in 2003 and later pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct after a legislative aide accused him of rape. In 2004 a 19-year-old intern said state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV gave her alcohol and took her to his motel room for sex. Powell said the sex was consensual; no charges were filed.