In interview, Bharara says "putting corrupt politicians in jail may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient"
City & State is celebrating 10 years as a publication this month with a special issue and event to commemorate the milestone. As part of the issue, our editorial board picked the newsmakers of the year for each of the years we have been publishing, as well as the Newsmaker of the Decade (2006-2016) – U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara.
Bharara, who will also be the keynote speaker at our anniversary event on Sept. 27, sat down for a wide-ranging interview with City & State President and CEO Tom Allon on Aug. 25. In part one of the three-part interview, Bharara discussed public corruption and how the culture in Albany has changed since he entered office. Below is an edited transcript.
City & State: Thank you for being with us, and congratulations on being picked by our editorial board as Newsmaker of the Decade.
Preet Bharara: It’s a great honor, thank you.
C&S: I wanted to ask you about (the Newsmaker award). What effect do you think you or your office have had on New York’s political climate over the last decade? How would you assess that?
PB: I don’t know if I’ve had any impact or effect at all because I’m not in the trenches. I’m not doing the hard work of connecting the dots. ... So this award, like any award I get, I accept on behalf of the folks in my office who are the ones who are working day in and day out to do all the kinds of things that bring these cases to light.
C&S: What impact do you think your office has had on the culture of Albany or the culture of politics?
PB: I don’t know how much impact it’s had yet on culture. The first and most important effect I think it’s had is it’s held people accountable, over a dozen people accountable just in the state Legislature, approximately. Just that alone I think is significant, and it sends a message to everyone in the public that this kind of conduct is not going to be tolerated. And people are paying attention and people are taking it seriously. And people are not afraid to go after folks who have power and have standing, and it doesn’t matter because no one is above the law. And I think, eventually, that has an effect on the people and the institutions that we’re looking at and investigating over time, and people get the message, I think. Particularly, there are a lot of smart people who are in politics and realize it’s not worth losing your liberty over, it’s not worth losing your reputation over, to engage in that conduct and conduct that they know is bad and unlawful. And I think over time that causes the situation to get better. But we can’t do it alone, and nobody here pretends that simply bringing a series of prosecutions is enough. I often say putting corrupt politicians in jail may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient.
C&S: You’ve talked in the past about self–policing. Do you think the Legislature in Albany does enough self-policing? And how would it compare to what goes on, for example, at the federal level, in Congress?
PB: I believe in evidence-based analysis and I, for one, I hate to say it, have not seen any evidence to show that there’s any serious kind of self-policing going on in the Legislature. I worked, as I think people know, for four and a half years in the United States Congress, which is imperfect, and it takes its hits and barbs also. I worked in the Senate, known often as the most deliberative body in the world, and some people think that’s a humorous way to describe it, given the gridlock that exists there. But I will tell you, based on my experience, and I think the experience of most sentient beings, that the level of self-policing, the level of culture in the United States Senate is many, many cuts above what you have been seeing based on the cases we’ve brought in the local legislature.
C&S: What specifically does the Senate do that might be adopted in the New York state Legislature?
PB: I don’t want to specify particular reforms. But I think you’ll find that a lot of institutions, whether you’re talking about the U.S. Congress or banks or prosecutor’s offices for that matter or colleges, you have to have a robust internal culture of watching yourself and policing yourself, and legislatures, the way they do it is they have hearings or they have folks in the legislature who are telling people that they need to keep on the up-and-up, and instead you have examples, the famous example of a staffer in the New York state Senate telling state senators that they should, rather than mail their financial disclosures, that they should walk them over to the office to avoid a mail fraud charge by the feds. And so that example – and then of course, when you have the example of the cases we brought, the case against the speaker of the Assembly, for example, which is on appeal, and we’ll see what happens on appeal – we feel very confident that it will be upheld on appeal – but what that case basically showed is it was not just the failings of a particular person, although of course it showed that, and that was the primary purpose of the trial, but it showed a failing in the system as a whole, a failing of transparency, a failing of accountability, and an overconcentration of power in some ways. I think that was all laid bare in a good way, and an illuminating way for the public in a trial that took place openly.
C&S: Some have compared the arc of your career a little bit to one of your predecessors, Rudy Giuliani, who took down the mob in New York and also was involved in taking down some public corruption. How would you compare your tenure to his, and do you think that’s a fair analogy?
PB: Look, he was U.S. attorney for a while, and was mayor for a while. I don’t think I’m like him in many ways. I’m outspoken about certain things, and we have brought some, I think, groundbreaking cases. I think every U.S. attorney who preceded me and every U.S. attorney that succeeds me is going to have a legacy of important groundbreaking cases in corruption and Wall Street and terrorism as well. But I’m a different person from him, and I hope people realize that.
C&S: Do you think New York state politics is more corrupt than in other places in the country, or do you think Chicago and New Jersey are the market leaders?
PB: So I’m not a comparative expert, but if you’re looking for a market leader, I wouldn’t not bet on New York. I don’t have a ton of experience with other legislatures, although I grew up in New Jersey, and from what I read in the papers it’s not in great shakes there either. I did, as some people know, once go speak to the Kentucky state Legislature at their invitation. I talked to the entire state Legislature. It was mandatory for them, I’m not sure how much they enjoyed that. But I did some research about Kentucky, and you realize that they had some corruption scandals some years ago, a couple decades ago, and they adopted a series of strict reforms, including among other things I believe not allowing fundraising to go on while the Legislature was in session, and a number of other things. And it’s probably the case, although no, I’m not an expert, that the reason there have been far fewer scandals, political scandals and arrests and incarcerations of people in the Legislature from Kentucky, is in part due to those reforms. Because people got the message. And they had a wake-up call, and they realized they had to do something serious because a lot of people had gotten in trouble. I don’t think any reasonable observer can say that the same alarm bell has caused the same amount of change and action in New York.
C&S: Do you think public financing of state campaigns would have a positive impact like it’s had on New York City in politics?
PB: Yeah, maybe. Again, I know it’s frustrating for people because I do like to talk about the issue because I like to raise awareness about the corruption problem. But I’m not in a position to advocate any particular reform, whether it’s term limits or public financing or outside income. I think given the problem that you have, given how many people have gone to prison, given how many investigations seem to be still swirling around, that something has to be done beyond simply prosecutors sending people to prison. And whether it’s one of the things that you mentioned, or it’s a combination of those things, I think at some point, when someone goes to the doctor and there are a lot of things that ail the person, the patient should not be sent home with a lollipop.
C&S: You mentioned before the appeal in the Sheldon Silver case and obviously the Dean Skelos cases are going to appeal also. Do you think the recent decision by the (U.S.) Supreme Court in the Bob McDonnell case will have an impact on those appeals or in future cases you might bring?
PB: Well, like all things, that’s going to be fought out in court and as you can imagine there are robust lawyers on all sides. Our view is, based on a fairly clear reading of the McDonnell case, is that it will not have an effect on either the Silver case or the Skelos case, but that’s being fought about in court as we speak.
C&S: And how will it impact the way your office brings cases in the future?
PB: Well, Supreme Court decisions are the law of the land, and so it if turns out in the future that we’re investigating what we think is misconduct along with the FBI and our law enforcement partners, and it turns out there was a “quid” and you’re trying to prove the “quo” in the “quid pro quo” and the quo, there’s not enough evidence that there’s something beyond the kinds of things that the McDonnell court thought were insufficient, like constituent services or meetings of some sort, and we don’t have evidence beyond that, then we wouldn’t bring the case because it wouldn’t be proper to do so. But I don’t think it’s going to affect our aggressiveness or our creativity to bring these cases when it’s the law of the land.
C&S: We talked a little bit about self-policing before. What role do you think the media has played in covering corruption in New York state? Do you think it has been generally positive or do you think the media can do better?
PB: I think the media, like a lot of other businesses in the country, have suffered a bit, and I know – and I’ve said many times – that the media is an important part to the solution to a lot of problems in the country, including those of transparency and accountability and ferreting out corruption, and my favorite kind of reporting is investigative reporting because we do a version of that here. We have subpoena power – reporters don’t. Often, it’s enterprising reporters who can find the bad things that are happening in corporations, but also in city government, state government and federal government. There’s a reason why the Washington Post won Pulitzer Prizes over their investigations of Watergate, and I’d like to see more of that. I wish there was more of that. I think it’s difficult, as newsrooms are having to lay people off, to do investigative reporting. Some of the greatest cases we’ve brought, including a very significant corruption case involving CityTime, the software program, the payroll program the city was engaging in, by which the company defrauded the city to the tune of $500 million, that was largely brought to public attention and our attention by the enterprising reporting of a journalist at the Daily News. Sometimes, investigative journalism can cause us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t have thought to do.
C&S: What was your immediate reaction when the governor shut down the Moreland Commission two years ago?
PB: I think I was not mute about it at the time and I think I had a reaction that was natural given a number of things, including the level of fanfare of which the commission was opened, how I had been consulted on it. I was the first witness called to testify at it and there was a concern that if there was work that had been done, that the sudden shuttering of the commission might result in that work not being continued – that’s the kind of thing that upsets people like me and the people of this office. The most important thing was to make sure that that work didn’t get buried, because that’s a bad thing for everybody. And so, we took over the work of the Moreland Commission. It was given to us, we didn’t have to subpoena it and we continued in the same vein. We found they were barking up some correct trees and part of that evidence became a part of our case in the Silver case.
C&S: The governor recently signed another ethics law that was passed by state lawmakers this year. Do you think things are moving in a positive direction there or is there still not enough of a wake-up call in Albany?
PB: I’m going to leave it to others to figure out what things should be passed and what shouldn’t. Goes back to my analogy of the doctor treating a patient and when various organs are failing and limbs seem not to be working well, you should be leaving the hospital with more than just an aspirin.
Part 2 of City & State's interview with Bharara will be released next Tuesday, Sept. 20.