Tough-Talking Prosecutor Preet Bharara Is Ready for His Close-Up
On Thursday morning, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, shocked the state’s political class with the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges. On Friday morning, he cracked up a crowd of lawyers, former U.S. prosecutors, and politicians at breakfast.
Well before Bharara’s case against Silver, who allegedly took millions of dollars in a bribery scheme, went public, the prosecutor had been scheduled to speak at the breakfast at New York Law School. He opened with a suitably cocky joke.
“I see some public officials here, and, after yesterday, I have two theories as to why that might be,” he said. “One, you thought I would be taking attendance. And the other is that there are a lot of folks now looking for immunity.”
The icebreaker had an edge to it. Bharara’s office charged the State Assembly speaker with turning his office into a cash register through which millions in bribes and kickbacks flowed. At least some of these transfers allegedly translated into quid pro quo exchanges of funds for favors.
Silver is a longtime power broker, and, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, one of the three most powerful public officials in the state. In Albany, the trio is often referred to as the “three men in a room” who run New York. His arrest was shocking not just because the assembly speaker has held his position for 20 years, but also because he’s a Democrat. Bharara, nominated for his position by Barack Obama and previously employed as an aide to Democratic senator Chuck Schumer, is digging into his own team. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith described the indictment as “a dramatic and unusual move, a step far across the invisible lines that often constrain appointed prosecutors.” (Smith labeled Bharara “the most dangerous man in American politics”; Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter has previously described him as “very much a hero of our times.”)
On Friday morning, Bharara spoke with the rhythm of a seasoned politician, as he used his public comments to explain the high-stakes prosecution of Silver. Aware of his moment in the spotlight, he gave the city’s metro desk columnists plenty of tough talk with which to work. At one point he even compared himself to Mark Wahlberg’s character in The Departed, who tells a criminal, “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”
“We are fundamentally fearless . . . and appropriately aggressive,” Bharara said of the Southern District.
“The people of New York should be disappointed, but they should be more than disappointed. They should be angry,” Bharara continued. “When so many of their leaders can be bought for a few thousand dollars, they should think about getting angry. When it is more likely for a New York State senator to be arrested by the authorities than to be defeated at the polls, maybe they should think about being angry.”
While many pundits positioned Thursday’s arrest of Silver as a watershed moment in New York politics, Bharara took pains to rattle off a list of other elected officials his office has convicted. “It seems, sometimes, that Albany really is a cauldron of corruption,” he said. “In some ways, [the Silver case] is different from other cases, because of the standing and stature of the person who was charged. But in many ways, it’s business as usual in our public-corruption unit.”
Bharara’s case against Silver is striking in its particulars, but symbolically important as well. On Friday, the U.S. attorney characterized the charges as endemic of a culture of malfeasance in the state capital, likening those engaged in wrongdoing to “barnacles on the bottom of a ship, of which there are many.” Bharara took particular aim at the “three men in a room” characterization, arguing that the “unduly” concentrated power in New York lends itself to bad governance. “I have a hard time getting my head around this concept,” which he compared to a sitcom.
“Maybe it’s just me; I’m from India, which is overpopulated, so, for me, it’s like a billion men in a room,” he riffed. “Lots of people would have questions about ‘three men in a room.’ Like: Why do they all have to be men? Can there be a woman? Do they always have to be white? How small is the room, that they can only fit three men? Is it three men in a closet? Are there cigars?”
“The decision to charge the speaker of the New York Assembly yesterday was made by more than three men in a room,” Bharara said.
Speaking at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in October, Bharara characterized his ongoing campaign against shadiness on Wall Street as a natural counterbalance to the culture of banking and trading. “You have places where people are trying to be as cute as possible . . . and it happens all the time,” Bharara said. “If you have a culture of getting as close to the line as possible, where what you aspire to is getting the bare minimum that the law encounters, you’re going to get in trouble.”
“Cute” might not be the first word that comes to mind when observers speak of the dealings that underpin New York State politics, but corruption in Albany is the stuff of legend. Last year, Cuomo abruptly suspended the Moreland Commission, which had been convened to investigate wrongdoing in the state’s capital. Bharara’s office, apparently despairing that the commission’s work would go to waste, picked up and built upon the existing evidence to identify a pattern of Silver’s alleged influence peddling what they say amounts to millions of dollars.
Other New York lawmakers are reportedly reeling from the indictment, fearing Silver could whisper juicy stories to the Feds in exchange for, as The New York Times put it, leniency. Cuomo, too, may come under sharper focus—his 2014 opponent and Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout laid at the doorstep of the governor’s mansion the blame for “a culture of secrecy and corruption, an Old Boys Network that has gotten worse.”
If Bharara is sometimes criticized for, as Steve Fishman wrote for New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, “choosing quantity over quality” when it comes to his Wall Street prosecutions (while Bharara levied a massive fine against the hedge fund SAC Capital, for example, he fell short of criminally prosecuting its founder and C.E.O. Steve Cohen), the Silver case certainly suggests he’s more than willing to go after political kingmakers.
Bharara said he believes most people are good, but his threats of further action must be ringing in the ears of politicians who have been toeing, or crossing, the line. “Law enforcement will use every aggressive tool at our disposal—wiretaps, confidential informants, undercover agents, and stings,” he said. “We don’t care—and I think people get this, by now—we don’t care if you’re a city official, a state official, a Democrat, a Republican, a back-bencher, or a gavel-wielding leader in your body. If you have broken the law, we will do everything that we can to hold you accountable.”