Born to run: Is Preet Bharara destined for political office – and does he want it?
There's an old joke that goes something like this:
One day, G-d woke up and decided he wasn't powerful enough … so he appointed himself U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
I ask Preet Bharara whether that joke holds a grain of truth in a recent interview at his stately office at 1 St. Andrews Plaza.
The 47-year-old prosecutor's eyes light up and a wide grin spreads across his face.
“I've never heard that one. I'm going to use that one!”
It's a good time to be a federal litigator chasing corrupt politicians in Albany – it’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. Bharara's recent takedown of two of the three most powerful men in New York state has cemented his reputation as a big-game hunter in the wilds of the New York state Legislature.
But what is most striking about Bharara is his easy ability to laugh, to appreciate a good joke, to banter about the idiosyncratic characters in New York's political world. His intense focus and quick thinking are readily apparent when you first meet him, but it's his playfulness and refreshing sense of humor that are surprising. Especially from someone whose day job is deadly serious, whose very name evokes fear and dread in certain political circles.
As City & State's “Newsmaker of the Decade” and the keynote speaker at the media company's 10th Anniversary Gala, Bharara is an interesting mix of popular and pariah – when inviting guests to the event I encountered some polar opposite reactions.
“Wow! That's quite a get,” said one consultant late last month.
Another Albany insider said: “Preet is your keynote? Do you want no one to attend?”
Such is the reaction that the crusading U.S. attorney elicits these days. When spotted at last year's Inner Circle gala, it was fascinating to witness how many New York power brokers intentionally walked the other way when they spotted Preet coming in their direction.
“When you announce that I will keynote your event, I'm curious to see if attendance drops or rises,” he mused during our late August interview.
Two weeks later, tickets were sold out.
Preet's Favorite Things
If Eliot Spitzer was “The Sheriff of Wall Street” and Rudy Giuliani was “The Sheriff of Little Italy,” then Preet Bharara could be called “The Sheriff of Albany.”
Many observers say that unlike Giuliani, Bharara has not politicized the U.S. attorney's office for personal political gain.
“Bharara has been far more circumspect than Giuliani,” said Bruce Gyory, a political consultant and senior advisor at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “Giuliani was focused on building his name recognition and poll ratings heading into his first run for mayor in 1989. Bharara has been focused on winning his cases with almost no photo ops.”
This sentiment was echoed by other prominent political observers. “What differentiates Bharara from Giuliani and so many other ambitious people who have distinguished themselves at the highest levels of law enforcement,” said Bill Samuels, the director of EffectiveNY, “is that Bharara has not winked at the press while insisting he's not using his position as a springboard for higher office.”
Although the state capital is more than an hour north of the Southern District's jurisdiction, Bharara is casting a very ominous shadow on the sketchy dealings of a growing legion of New York legislators – to date, he has a dozen politicos on his wall of shame.
The U.S. attorney has a perfect prosecution record when it comes to hunting down legislators, from the convictions of Pedro Espada in 2012, to Malcolm Smith, Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos in 2015.
Bharara says part of the solution is quite simple: If New York's Legislature self-policed as well as the U.S. Senate, he wouldn’t need to be “The Sheriff of Albany.”
“I have not seen any evidence that there's any serious kind of self-policing going on in the New York state Legislature,” Bharara said in a recent interview with City & State. “The level of self-policing in the United States Senate is many, many cuts above what you have been seeing in the local Legislature. A lot of institutions, whether you're talking about the U.S. Congress or banks or prosecutor's offices, or for that matter colleges, you have to have a robust internal culture of watching yourself and policing yourself.”
But until Albany – or City Hall – decides to undergo significant reforms to ensure self-policing, Bharara will need to bring cases that thwart financial malfeasance among elected officials.
Some believe that Bharara has reframed the discussion about ethics in government. “The office's fight against corruption – not just (in) Albany but throughout the city and state – is something that has changed the image of New York politics,” said Richard Zabel, a former deputy to Bharara who is now working in the private sector. “It has permanently redefined the discussion about what kind of government the citizens of New York want and deserve. But as Preet has said, you can't prosecute your way to honest, transparent government – that has to be brought about by the people demanding it and finding the few representatives who have the courage to change the system they made their bed in.”
Bharara says he hopes his office's work has shown that no one in power is above the law. Taking down Silver and Skelos, two longtime power brokers, sent shockwaves through the political system. “It sends a message to everyone in the public that this kind of conduct is not tolerated,” said Bharara. “Now people are paying attention and taking it seriously. Eventually, that has an effect on the people and the institutions we're looking at. Over time that causes the situation to get better.”
One pundit said that Bharara's unique legal approach has been responsible for his success. “Bharara used the brilliant strategy of arresting Speaker Sheldon Silver and Majority Leader Dean Skelos on complaints rather than indictments,” said Daily News editorial board member Arthur Browne. “The procedure allowed Bharara to describe their conduct in powerful narrative detail, forcing the legislature to dump the officials pre-trial and educating the public about Albany's workings.”
But Bharara also understands the limitations of law enforcement in fixing corruption in government. “We can't do it alone and nobody here pretends that simply bringing a series of prosecutions is enough,” Bharara said. “I often say, putting corrupt politicians in jail may be necessary, but it's not sufficient.”
To understand Bharara's drive to achieve justice of all kinds – his office has also been active in prison reform at Rikers, prosecuting cyberterrorism and championing the underdog in securities cases as well – it's important to look at his family background. Bharara's grandparents fled Pakistan after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 – and like many refugees, they had to abandon all their assets and start over again.
His parents, Jagdish and Desh, settled in New Jersey but had very few resources when they were starting a family. Preet's father was a doctor, and he hoped his two sons would follow the family tradition in medicine. Preet's father often had to work more than one job in order to send his sons to private school – he worked multiple shifts at New Jersey hospitals and clinics and even moonlighted treating jockeys at Monmouth Park Racetrack.
Despite his father's interest in directing his son to medicine (they dissected frogs together in the family backyard), Bharara became interested in law as a seventh grader when he read “Inherit the Wind.” Bharara was inspired by Clarence Darrow's speech to the jury in the 1926 case People v. Henry Sweet: “Make yourselves colored for a little while. It won't hurt you, you can wash it off. They can't, but you can.”
“When I was in a high school speech competition I was asked to present a speech that had been delivered by someone else and I chose Darrow's summation in People v. Henry Sweet,” said Bharara. “He was fighting for a young African-American man who was helping to defend his home against an angry white mob because he had the temerity to move into a neighborhood in Detroit where black people weren't welcome.
“Some of the things Darrow says about the nature of justice and the nature of the law and the human role in enforcing the law and in causing justice to be done in that summation are the finest I've ever heard and I quote from it often.”
In high school in New Jersey, he distinguished himself by winning many debating awards and was selected to give the valedictory address at graduation. He foreshadowed his courageous temperament by giving a powerful speech in defense of a teacher who was fired from the school because of a dispute about overtime pay.
Standing just a few feet from the school's headmaster, Preet bravely spoke truth to power. “We can never forget to question, to doubt, to challenge,” Barhara said. “The target of our questioning may be an individual, an idea, a government, or a school. And that target may be more powerful and more experienced and more knowledgeable than we are. But should that stop us from questioning?”
Bharara continued his speech even after the headmaster walked out in a huff.
At Harvard, Bharara met Viet Dinh in an introductory government seminar, and the two became close friends. “Our first assignment was to determine whether the framers set up the American government based on the idea that man was essentially bad or that man was essentially good,” Dinh said in a recent New Yorker article. “We left class and wound up talking all night. I argued 'bad' and Preet argued 'good.' I am more skeptical. Preet is more optimistic.”
I asked Bharara how, given his current line of work, he can believe in the goodness of people. “I take inspiration from the people around this office who I think are among the best people that I know anywhere. They are public servants who have given up a lot of money – virtually all of them – to do something that requires long hours, most of it not done in front of cameras, to make the world a little better, to make their communities a little better.
“I look at them and see how they conduct themselves with such joy in their work, which is interesting, because the people in my office see human beings at their worst. They see people who kill children, who maim witnesses, who steal from old people, who leave people penniless, who cheat the voters. Really, really bad conduct and bad human behavior. When you see all those things happen and you see the energy with which people approach their jobs – like the prosecutors in this office, and the NYPD, and the FBI and other agencies we work with – there's nothing more inspiring to me than that.”
Bharara is said to inspire those who work with him, and colleagues have called him a great manager and leader. “He is fearless but fair,” said Zabel, his former deputy. “He can operate at a big-picture level, as a U.S. attorney should, but he can and will get deeply into the nuances and details of matters when it is called for. He can process a lot of information quickly and has a great sense of strategy.
“Everyone who has worked under Preet has felt the office has been a place of great achievement, professionalism, camaraderie and fun.”
When Zabel left the office last year for the private sector, he was subject to the usual roast of departing colleagues. Showing his lighter side (and a surprisingly good singing voice, Zabel said), Preet sang a farewell song to the tune of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Zabel got a chance to respond. “Since I left the office, everyone has been asking me the same question. Have I seen ‘Billions’?”
Many people believe that the main character in that cable series, a hard-charging U.S. attorney who vigorously cracks down on a hedge fund billionaire, is based on Preet's pursuit of Wall Street billionaire Steve Cohen. On the fictional series, the U.S. attorney is also married to a woman who likes to dress up as a dominatrix.
“The truth is, I haven't seen it,” Zabel said at the roast. “But I did see a clip, where a woman in a dominatrix outfit stands astride our shirtless U.S. attorney, burning him with a cigarette and then urinating on him,” Zabel mused.
“I am surprised how since I left they have lost control of (Preet's) image.”
In addition to his camaraderie with his colleagues, Bharara is said to have a close but rivalrous relationship with his younger brother, Vinit. Like Preet, Vinit went to Columbia Law School, but he decided not to pursue a career in law – he is a very successful entrepreneur. Vinit created a company, Diapers.com, that was sold to Amazon in 2011 for more than half a billion dollars.
Preet told the New Yorker: “That's my brother's way of saying, ‘Hey bro, I see your whole U.S. attorney thing, and I raise you $545 million.’”
A favorite parlor game in the political world is predicting what's next for the U.S. attorney from the Southern District.
I pose this to him directly: How do you respond to those people who ask what you're going to do next?
Bharara swats away this question with wit.
“Depending on what time of day it is I talk about the next meal I'm going to have,” Bharara says with an impish grin. “I think right now the next meal I'm going to have is dinner.”
OK. Let's try a different approach.
Usually when a new president comes into office, the U.S. attorneys resign, and then they may be reappointed. Is that what you plan to do with a new president coming in?
“We're really busy for the next few months and you'll be seeing the kinds of things the men and women in this office have been working on,” said Bharara. “My view has always been that this is seven years and counting now, which is a fairly long tenure in this job. I think it's one of the longest in the last hundred years or so. I love the job more than anything else I've done. I'm not tired of it. I'm enjoying it.
“We'll see if people let me do the job.”
Would you rule out ever running for elected office?
“It seems really, really, really unlikely.”
But like Rudy Giuliani was able to leverage his high profile stint as U.S. attorney into the mayoralty in 1993, many on the political scene see a bright future in elected office for Bharara.
If he wants it.