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Preet Bharara: A crusader's tenure, a hero's exit

Last updated on: March 15, 2017 20:07 IST

Meet the US Attorney who took on Donald Trump.
Monali Sarkar profiles Preet Bharara.

Preet Bharara

IMAGE: Preet Bharara was among the longest serving US Attorneys for the Southern District of New York. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

 

Unless you are on the wrong side of the table from him -- and no one wants to be there -- the first thing that strikes you about Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York until March 13, 2017, is his courage of conviction.

Whether he is prosecuting the mafia or terrorists.

Or whether he is investigating rich bankers and powerful politicians.

The second is his razor-sharp wit and humour.

Whether he is giving commencement speeches.

Or whether he is addressing panels and state legislatures.

The third is how approachable and down-to-earth he is.

Whether you bump into him on a New York subway -- as my colleagues and I (we were headed to the then India Abroad office on Wall Street and Bharara, we assumed, was heading to 1 St Andrews Plaza) once did.

Or whether he is the top honouree at Rediff.com's India Abroad Person of the Year Awards ceremony.

And the image that will epitomise -- at least for some time -- all of these facets of Bharara will be his hero's exit from the office of the US Attorney's office in Manhattan on March 13.

Preet Exit

IMAGE: Preet Bharara walked out of the US Attorney's office to sustained applause, cheers and hugs from colleagues.
Several media outlets have alluded to the fact that Bharara's dismissal came as his office was probing Fox News and had been requested to investigate whether President Donald Trump violated the constitutional clause barring federal employees from receiving benefits from foreign governments. Photograph: Kind courtesy @CNBCnow/Twitter.com

 

Bharara's exit as US Attorney came at the end of a face-off with the Trump administration that was handled with as much grit, cunning and fearlessness as Bharara brought to his office since his tenure began seven-and-a-half years ago.

On March 10, it was revealed that the Trump administration had sought the resignations of 46 attorneys appointed by former US president Barack Obama, including Bharara.

Bharara's name was considered unexpected because within days of winning the election, he had been invited to Trump Tower for a meeting with the president-elect -- which was widely reported on -- and been asked to continue.

When the demand for immediate resignation came, Bharara refused, forcing the Trump administration to fire him instead.

He tweeted -- from a personal Twitter account (incidentally started just a week before he was asked to resign) -- 'I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired.'

Later, in a statement, he added, 'One hallmark of justice is absolute independence, and that was my touchstone every day that I served.'

It was a clever move.

As Danny Cevallos, a CNN legal analyst, explained, 'As impolite as it seems, demanding resignations from US attorneys is actually standard operating procedure in the DoJ when a new administration assumes power... But a US attorney being fired instead of resigning? That's a big difference. It's also very rare.'

'It's a clever chess move by Bharara: force the firing, make the administration look like the tyrants. It's not like it hurts Bharara; this is one legal luminary whose job prospects will not be harmed by being "fired" from his last job,' Cevallos added.

As CNN legal analyst Paul Callan observed, former US attorneys from this district have even ascended to the New York City mayor's office after their tenure.

A firing like Bharara's was especially 'unusual,' Cevallos added, because he 'is a superstar among US attorneys, and the man who 'struck fear into Wall Street and Albany.' Albany is the seat of the New York state government.

What Preet says: On his historic appointment.

On his historic appointment

I appreciate what it means to be the first Asian-American, or Indian-American US attorney in Manhattan, nominated by the first African-American President. And it means a lot to a lot of people. (When appointed, he was also the highest-ranking Indian-American law enforcement officer.)

What it mostly teaches me is... everything is possible in America.

When you have a name like Preet Bharara and you can still become the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, where people who have held this position before have names like Whitney North Seymour and Robert Morgenthau Jr, whose photographs line the wall outside my office it tells you anything is possible. That's what I think the most important thing about it (is).

However, in my day-to-day job, once you realise it's a nice thing to be the first, it doesn't matter much after that. As I often say... it doesn't matter who's the first Indian-American this or African-American that. What matters is what you do when you get the job.

So long as you do your job in the right way, and you maintain the public trust, uphold the tradition of your office; that means something.

I do think that it's terrific if people can draw, within a community, inspiration from seeing someone from that community (succeed) to be successful (themselves). But more importantly than that, people need to discharge their duty in that office without reference to cultural backgrounds or colour or anything else.

Under Bharara, the USDNY successfully prosecuted 85 back-to-back insider trading cases, including high-profile ones like hedge fund owner Raj Rajaratnam and Indian-origin banker Rajat Gupta, before losing one.

Bharara had then told India Abroad (a Rediff.com publication at the time): 'By any measure, 85 and 1 is an incredible record and a better record than even our overall record prosecutions of the office. So, that one acquittal we had so far in trial makes clear how impressive the first 85 convictions were. It's not easy to convict somebody in America; it shouldn't be and it isn't. It also shows people that we weren't just taking easy cases -- we were taking hard cases too.'

While Bharara was hailed as the 'Sheriff of Wall Street' and even listed among the Time 100: The Most Influential People in the World, he was also criticised for only going after a few big fish and not really pursuing the sharks.

'Not every case is easy to be brought,' Bharara had told us in response. 'But we've felt we've done both. We've gone after individuals. We went after individual bankers in the JP Morgan Chase London case; we went after bankers in the Credit Suisse case, and those related to the financial crisis.'

'In other circumstances we've gone after gigantic banks and have them pay billions of dollars and have them agree to a monitor and have them agree to make admissions of bad conduct and have them agree to deferred prosecution charges. So, you can't generalise on a particular case, on particular facts that you have.'

What Preet says: On being the 'Sheriff of Wall Street'.

On being the 'Sheriff of Wall Street'

What is important to me is maintaining the tradition of the office.

As I said before, and I actually take this very seriously, when you come up the hallway -- I actually mention this in speeches because it makes an impact on me -- going back to 1900 are the pictures of US attorneys (of the Southern District of New York) who have served here.

Some of them have gone on to very impressive careers and there's a legacy. That's the legacy I care about, and the legacy they have that's important is not whether someone dubbed them the Sheriff of Wall Street or said they were powerful or not. Their legacy -- the best among them -- was to be a leader in an office like this where power and unbelievable ability to affect people's lives was discharged with great wisdom, discretion and fairness.

At the end of the day, the best among them were considered tough and aggressive, but also fair and decent and reasonable human beings. If I can leave this office, and if people say that about me then, that's the legacy I care about.

Though the prosecution of insider trading cases got the bulk of the attention, Bharara's office was just as tough on other crime.

It was his office that won the conviction of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad in the most serious post-9/11 terror threat to New York City, as well as the conviction of one of the most notorious arms traffickers in modern history, Viktor Bout.

His office also won several mafia-related convictions.

'There are some people who have too narrow a view of the great work this office does,' Bharara had said. 'There are only a handful of people who are working on insider trading cases and at the same time, people in our office have been working incredibly hard and incredibly successfully on public corruption cases, narcotics trafficking cases, on terrorism cases, civil fraud cases, and all of that work should be in an ideal world equally acknowledged.'

What Preet says: On the most fulfilling & tragic cases.

On the most fulfilling & tragic cases

It's impossible to name a single highlight. It's basically been the equivalent of a highlight reel, whether you are talking about the terrorism cases, including the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, or the first and only person convicted out of Guantanamo Bay, and more recently, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, or you are talking about the huge cases against big companies like Toyota or Bank of America or BNP, the largest bank in France, or the oldest bank in Switzerland or SAC Capital.

Those have been unbelievably important cases, or you are talking about a line of corrupt politicians (in the New York state legislatures in Albany) who've been held accountable and sent to prison or you are talking about some of the civil cases or you are talking about the cyber cases.

What I am proud of is that everyone in the office has worked really hard in every area -- not just one or two areas, but really in every area -- making the public a little safer and holding people accountable who deserve to be held accountable.

There are a lot of sad things. A lot of the crimes we prosecuted, at base, they have to be prosecuted because what happens to start a case was a tragedy. We convicted (Ahmed) Ghailani and brought to trial more people who were responsible for the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, in which 24 people were killed.

We prosecuted gang cases in Newburgh in the Bronx after innocent kids had been shot and killed in the crossfire.

We had cases that didn't get much attention with the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and those are incredibly sad.

But what is rewarding is that at the end of the day, we do as much as we can to bring some peace and justice to families and also a different kind of justice to the perpetrators.

Bharara's tenure will be especially remembered for its tough, unwavering stand on corruption.

His office investigated and successfully convicted one of New York's most powerful politicians -- 11-term speaker of the New York state assembly Sheldon Silver -- for taking millions of dollars in payoffs.

They also investigated New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's decision to end an anti-corruption panel.

They were preparing to try a group of Cuomo's former aides and associates in a bribery and bid-rigging case. And they had been investigating New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign fundraising for misconduct.

'Indeed, in law-enforcement circles the Southern District is nicknamed the "sovereign district," because of its reputation for resisting direction, even from its nominal superiors, in Washington,' The New Yorker said in its profile of Bharara in 2016.

'Some have said, half-jokingly, that the Southern District is the only US Attorney's office with its own foreign policy,' the respected magazine added.

What Preet says: On the risks of the job.

On the risks of the job

I'm not worried about it (his immediate family). I'm much more worried about the security of the assistant US attorneys who are on the ground prosecuting cases.Some of the people we prosecute are extremely violent and extremely dangerous — some of the most dangerous people on the planet -- and we send (them) to prison for the rest of their lives. From time to time, someone doesn't like that we're doing (so), and there can be a security risk. That's been true since the beginning of time. That will be true till the end of time. We take precautions, but it is not something that I particularly worry about.

It especially seemed that way for many when Bharara's office, in 2013, prosecuted then deputy consul general of India Dr Devyani Khobragade for visa fraud 'in connection with lies about what she would ultimately pay her domestic worker (also an Indian).'

The arrest led to an unprecedented diplomatic stand-off with the Indian government withdrawing privileges extended to American diplomats in India.

Though the case against Dr Khobragade originated in the US state department, and was investigated by them, Bharara, as the prosecuting authority, became the face of the case.

It led to brutal criticism in India, which Bharara later acknowledged that did bother him.

'I'll admit that I was upset as I think a normal human being might be. But as the accusations got more and more absurd, they became downright comical and I got some of my perspective back,' he said.

'Indian critics were angry because even though I hailed from India, I appeared to be going out of my way to act American and serve the interests of America, which was odd because I am American and the words US are in my title.'

What Preet says: On the anger over the Khobragade case.

On the anger over the Khobragade case

I understand there are a lot of people who have their own views... but the law is the law, and if you've broken the law, whether you are a mid-level or a previously unknown Indian diplomat or you are a hedge fund king-pin or you are a drug-dealer or you are a politician who's been elected to office by hundreds of thousands of people, if doesn't matter.

No one is above the law and no one gets a short-cut around the law. That's actually why notwithstanding occasional small pockets of criticism from people who are not familiar with the office and don't even live in this country, the strength of the office is that we are relentless in every case.

Sometimes there is a high-profile case in a particular community and it gets a lot of attention, but we are relentless in every case. We are relentless in some cases you haven't heard of -- in our murder cases, in our drug cases, we are relentless in our arms trafficking cases, we are relentless in our public corruption cases. In all our cases.

So, when one asks a silly question as to why you don't drop a case and there is no legal basis for dropping a case, why should you do it?

Why should somebody get special treatment because they happen to be of the same ethnic background as the prosecutor?

To do that in fact, would be corrupt.

Our office tried the son of the crime boss John Gotti, Jr, three times unsuccessfully because they didn't care if they'd be successful. (But) That's the way we do it and I don't think John Gotti, Jr was from India!

It (the criticism) was not terrific. I don't mind criticism and if you do any kind of a public job, you have to get used to criticism. I don't mind it. But what gets to you is if people question your motivations in an idiotic way.

And, there are a lot of people who do a lot of things, and you can criticise the decisions that the President makes or a public official makes, but when you suggest that their motivations are because they hate their own country -- the country they come from -- or they hate the colour of your skin, that's obnoxious and silly, and when your parents have to read that and your family has to read that, there are occasions when that can get to you.

But I am a big boy and you get past that.

Bharara's tenure has not been without its share of criticism from within America either.

Critics questioned his appearances at high-profile events, including Vanity Fair Oscar parties, and accused him of basking in the spotlight.

'Every once in a while, I get invited to something where I am a fish out of water, and every once in a while I go,' Bharara had said in response. 'I went and spoke at a very distinguished event -- the Harvard Law School commencement exercise -- which, was a great honour and I also had a selfie with Mindy Kaling that day. I am happy about both things.'

'The reason that our office gets the attention is because of the cases that career line prosecutors bring every day and it's important for people to know about their work because that is what helps to achieve its desired effect and helps other people to see how they shouldn't act and also is a testament to the work the career people do every day. So, I don't see that as a bad thing,' he added.

It became especially tricky during the Sheldon Silver prosecution, when Judge Valerie Caproni criticized Bharara for a 'media blitz' involving the trial.

'The US Attorney, while castigating politicians in Albany for playing fast and loose with the ethical rules that govern their conduct, strayed so close to the edge of the rules governing his own conduct that defendant Sheldon Silver has a non-frivolous argument that he fell over the edge to the defendant's prejudice,' the judge wrote.

What Preet says: On criticism.

On criticism

Associated with the job, when I was a line prosecutor and even now, if you get your satisfaction and your self-worth just from what people say, in particular from what other people who don't know anything about the facts of what the law says, then you won't last very long.

We get our self worth and satisfaction from the fact that everyday -- no matter what criticism comes our way, no matter what political forces or winds there are -- we do what we think is right.

Do we make mistakes sometimes?

Of course. But the guiding principle is that we do what we think is right all the time, whether you are talking about a small case, a large case, whether you are talking about a powerful person or a rich person or a politically connected person.

None of that matters to us and that's why the office has the reputation that it has preceding me. It's because we really don't care what ideology people come from, or what country people are from, but that if you've broken the law, then you have to answer for it.

But the one thing no one could accuse Bharara of was not being tough on Democrats and Republicans alike. Ironically, the scrupulously apolitical approach this recently fired US attorney brought to his tenure had its links to another time when US attorneys were fired.

The year was 2007, then US president George W Bush's second term, and Bharara was a top aide to US Senator Chuck Schumer. Under the influential New York senator's supervision, Bharara had investigated the firing done by the then US attorney general.

'People need to have faith that not only is justice done but is seen to be done,' Bharara told India Abroad years later. 'I learned that lesson in a particularly poignant way when I worked on the firing of the US attorneys.'

'There was a worry -- some of which was borne out -- that even at the low levels people were making hiring decisions based on political affiliation or ideological affiliation. That can have no part in any of this. All of what we do is based on the law and the facts.'

What Preet says: On being the son of immigrants.

On being the son of immigrants

The people who left their home country and came here for a better life acted with more courage than most people ever have. Certainly, it's the case with my father, who left his home and everything he had to come here by way of England to have a better life for his family. That was a more courageous thing to do than anything I'd ever had to do. He had to undergo more hardship and risk to himself than anything I've ever done.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of this job, I've had it easy. Most people who've grown up in this country, who have parents who chose to come here, have had it easy compared to what their parents did. Every act of migration embodies an act of courage that we can all take a lesson from.

As I said in my swearing-in... my dad has said many times that he's proud of me. But given the life that he led, and the example that he set, and the sacrifices he made, he will never be more proud of me than I am of him.

People here sometimes get nervous when they have to move across the country for a job change. My parents left a country where they knew the language, where they had huge families -- my dad is one of 13, my mom is one of seven, and their parents were alive at the time. They left everything they knew because they thought there was opportunity here.

If somebody is a product of that, like I am, like my brother is, and you don't feel some obligation to do something for the country that allowed their parents to go from nothing to owning their home and to putting their kids through substantial educations, even through Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia (University), if people don't think they owe something back to their country, then they are sadly mistaken.

Bharara has exited the US attorney's office amid much speculation about this future and cries for him to run for New York City mayor or New York governor.

However, there is no word yet from the man, who -- from the moment he was sworn in -- has repeatedly said that being appointed US Attorney for USDNY was his 'greatest privilege' and his 'dream job.'

And irrespective of speculative questions about how much money he could make at a private law firm or whether he would be running for political office his answer never changed.

'Since I was a kid, and the way I think I was brought up, we were always taught that it's important to make a contribution,' he told us when asked what drove this commitment. 'I feel that very strongly... I teach that to my children.'

'When you have parents who came from another country -- and my father came with basically nothing -- then you realise how fortunate you are. There's plenty of time to make money later; if you have the privilege to serve in some way, in a way that can make an impact, I think everybody should spend some time doing that.'

'In fact, every time I go speak at a law school, or even at a business school, I try to make the point that everyone has the opportunity not just to do some public service on the side, but to spend a few years doing public service. If they can afford to do it for their entire lives, that would be terrific.'

'As people have often said through our history, to who much is given much is expected. I feel that way to my core.'

What Preet says: On his dream job & future plans.

On his dream job & future plans

I don't think I can put into words how gratifying this job is.

It's the best job I will ever have. I say to people in the office all the time that every day is Thanksgiving. I really mean that. I've not had one bad day in this job, and there are a lot of reasons for that.

One reason is, almost uniquely, people in this office understand that their responsibility is to do the right thing all the time and to make sure that justice is done.

It's not about winning; it is not about getting notches in your belt; it's not about victories. It is not about any of those things other than to make sure you do the right thing for the right reasons all the time. That's a great feeling.

A lot of people, in life, whether you're a lawyer or in some other profession, you have to do a lot of things you don't necessarily believe in. We don't bring a case unless we believe in it and when we cease to believe in it we abandon the case. There's great gratification in that -- knowing that you're making an impact. The other gratifying parts of the job are (that) I get to work with the best lawyers on the face of the earth, who are not just incredibly smart, incredibly talented, but also decent people who live by the golden rule and act with integrity in everything that they do.

We spend a lot of time screening people who come to this office, and we sometimes reject people who have resumes that others would kill for.

Because we're looking for a particular quality of person who is dedicated to public service, who wants to do it for the right reasons, and who is not using this as a stepping stone to some other larger thing. Someone who is not only smart, not only talented, not only works hard, but is a good human being, because the worst thing that can happen in a democratic society is (that) you have people (who are not good human beings) in an office like this, where everyone is granted an enormous amount of power.

With that power comes the ability to ruin people's lives and ruin people's livelihoods. Unless you have people of great moral character who come into this office you very quickly have a bad system of justice.

We work in a department that has in its title 'justice,' so we live by that creed every day.

For most people, the opportunity to make a difference and make an impact on other people's lives and on their community never comes. When you are in this office, you get to have that opportunity every day...

If you get distracted about the next thing, you are not going to do the current thing especially well. At some point, when I have to leave, I'll probably think about it then, but not now.

The interviews with Preet Bharara were conducted between 2012 and 2014 by Aziz Haniffa for India Abroad, then a Rediff.com publication.


Don't miss: Preet Bharara's journey in his own words

 
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Monali Sarkar / Rediff.com