The political landscape in New York was shattered last night following revelations that Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose entire career has been founded upon preaching and enforcing moral and ethical standards across the state, recently sought the services of a high-class prostitution ring.
The cleaner-than-thou Mr Spitzer was reportedly snared in a federal wire-tap established to investigate a New Jersey-based call-girl operation called the Emperor's Club VIP, with wealthy clients in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London.
It routinely charged up to $5,500 (£2,730) per hour for the services of a single prostitute. Four leaders of the ring were arrested on federal charges last week.
In a very brief statement to reporters in City Hall in lower Manhattan, a grim Mr Spitzer offered an apology for his behaviour, offering no details but denying nothing. There was no word from him of resigning, although he came under instant pressure to do so.
"I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family," he said. "I apologise first and most importantly to my family. I apologise to the public and I promise better. I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals, it is about ideas and about the public good."
A Democrat who earned the name Sheriff of Wall Street as the state's attorney general before being elected Governor by a landslide in 2006, he has long been seen as one of the brightest new stars of the Democratic Party whose name has more than once been floated as a future American president.
Any taint of involvement with prostitutes would be highly damaging for any US politician, but for Mr Spitzer, 46, it spells catastrophe. He had a reputation not only as a straight arrow among his peers but one who relentlessly demanded the same level of probity from others.
The New York Times, which first broke the story early yesterday afternoon, cited an anonymous source close to the investigation saying that a certain "Client Number 9", thought to be Mr Spitzer, was recorded telephoning the Emperor's Club and arranging for one of its prostitutes to travel from New York to Washington to meet him in a room in the Mayflower Hotel, a few blocks from the White House. Details of the transaction are contained in a formal criminal complaint linked to the investigation. The prostitute dispatched to "Client 9" is identified as Kristin. After their tryst, she reported back to headquarters saying that all had gone well.
It is still unclear whether Mr Spitzer will face criminal charges. The New York Times pointed out that federal prosecutors rarely charge clients in prostitution cases, which are generally seen as state crimes. But the Mann Act, passed by Congress in 1910 to address prostitution, human trafficking and what was viewed at the time as immorality in general, makes it a crime to transport someone between states for the purpose of prostitution.
In that instance, the Governor would surely have no option but to resign. His position may be still less tenable if, as widely suggested, it emerges that the investigation into the Club was in a wider context of organised crime.
In the immediate term, he would be succeeded by New York's Lieutenant-General David Patterson, an African-American and a former member of the state legislature who is legally blind.
On a personal level, the story also seemed to defy credulity. Mr Spitzer's entire image is derived from his family-values rectitude. He has been married for 26 years and has three daughters. "I must now dedicate some time to regaining the trust of my family," Mr Spitzer said in his statement.
Mr Spitzer's electoral victory in 2006 came in the wake of his highly activist term as attorney general that was marked by numerous cases successfully pursued against banks, mutual funds and insurance giants on Wall Street. Even more ironically, Mr Spitzer also made his name cleaning up prostitution, unleashing charges against the leaders of three different rings in the New York area while attorney general.
In one such case in 2004, he spoke with anger and revulsion as he announced the arrest of 16 people for running a high-end prostitution service in the borough of Staten Island. "This was a sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management structure," he said at the time. "It was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring."