Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara builds a reputation on Wall Street, in Albany

STAN HONDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, has made a habit of putting bodies behind bars as head of the legendary and powerful Manhattan office dubbed the “Sovereign District of New York.”

WHO: Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York

WHAT: News conference

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WHEN: Thursday, April 4, 2013, noon

For allegedly shady public officials and insider traders in New York, this is becoming a harbinger of bad news, as it was Thursday when Bharara unveiled a new series of indictments in the latest political scandal to rock the city.

While New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has made “cleaning up Albany” a top priority and the White House has talked endlessly about reforming Wall Street, Bharara has made a habit of putting bodies behind bars as head of the legendary and powerful Manhattan office dubbed the “Sovereign District of New York.” And Bharara, who shares an appreciation for the power of media attention with his former boss, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), is making the most of it.

“For the second time in three days, we unseal criminal charges against a sitting member of our state legislature,” Bharara, 44, said during the Thursday afternoon news conference in downtown Manhattan. This time, the U.S. attorney accused a Bronx assemblyman of accepting bribes as part of a scheme to aid developers, which Bharara called “a fairly neat trick” that amounted to “a legislator selling legislation.”

“It becomes more and more difficult to avoid the sad conclusion that political corruption in New York is indeed rampant,” said Bharara, wearing his usual dark suit and starched butterfly collar. “[A] show-me-the-money culture in Albany is alive and well.”

National attention is not new to Bharara. Last year, his blue eyes and thinning hair graced the cover of Time Magazine under the headline “This Man Is Busting Wall Street.” His reputation was burnished by the conviction of billionaire hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam on 14 counts of insider trading, as well as successful cases against scores of other Wall Street traders. His office also successfully prosecuted Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber. At a recent Bruce Springsteen concert, the Boss shouted, “This is for Preet Bharara!” before singing “Send the robber barons straight to hell.”

It is now highly unlikely that the White House would forget about Bharara, as administration officials somehow did in 2009, when they failed to invite the Indian American powerhouse to the Indian state dinner.

On Tuesday, Bharara stood in front of a flow chart titled “Public Corruption in New York” to announce the arrest of six people in connection with a somewhat risible bribery scandal. Malcolm Smith, an influential Democratic state senator from Queens, sought to buy his way onto the Republican mayoral ticket, Bharara’s office alleged, by paying off Republican Party officials. “You have Malcolm in the middle,” Bharara said to chuckles at the news conference. (Bharara’s complaint was not short on laugh lines. At one point, Smith allegedly said that the recipient of a bribe would “have to stand on the Empire State Building and drop every person [he had previously] endorsed and hold Malcolm up and say he’s the best thing since sliced bread. . . . Matter of fact, he’s better than sliced bread.” Another arrested official was recorded bragging, “I run the Queens County Republican Party” to an informant whom he had, rather inexpertly, patted down for a recording device.)

“If [Bharara] smells corruption, he’ll go after it and figure out a way to corral it,” Schumer said. “But he will not make up cases for the sake of making up cases.”

“Preet has the Southern District of New York firing on all cylinders,” said Ben Lawsky, a member of Cuomo’s inner circle and, like Bharara, a former chief counsel to Schumer, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lawsky said that as Bharara continues to bring major cases tackling erosion of public integrity, Wall Street shenanigans and public safety, “you just have to conclude that he is one of, if not the, most important, most effective law enforcement officers in the country. . . . He is setting a national model.”

There has been much praise for the professionally intense and personally wry prosecutor, who did not return a call seeking comment. But some have raised questions about whether he has been too aggressive in going after alleged bad guys. His office’s prosecution of the “Cannibal Cop” — a police officer who was caught discussing on Internet chat rooms the abduction, murder and cannibalization of women — prompted a constitutional debate about when a disturbing fantasy becomes a criminal conspiracy. In a New York Post article headlined “Reality bites! Cannibal cop guilty, facing life on prison diet,” Bharara was quoted as saying the plans “were very real.”

Bharara’s critics also have accused him of prepping the media with news of arrests before they happen. “Extra! Print newspaper reports politicians’ arrest before it happens,” read a headline on Capital New York, which noted that the New York Post broke the Smith story with the headline “MAYOR RACE ‘BRIBE’ PLOT” splashed across the front page, even as one of its reporters was stationed at the house of a targeted city councilman. (The U.S. Attorney’s Office told Capital, “We abhor leaks and we have no idea where these leaks came from.”)

Such concerns are unlikely to slow down Bharara. Considered politically astute by observers in Washington and New York, Bharara made a point of not taking sides in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary that pitted then-senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has been rumored as a possible successor to his boss, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., either in the current administration or the next Democratic one.

His close allies say he’s happy where he is. “His goal in life was to be U.S. attorney for the Southern District,” Schumer said. “He worked there for a long time. I think he’s achieving his life’s goal.”

Preetinder S. Bharara was born in Ferozepur, in the northern Punjab region of India, and immigrated with his family and settled in New Jersey, where he became a U.S. citizen at age 12. Bharara excelled in school and graduated from Harvard and then Columbia Law School. The son of a Sikh father and Hindu mother, he married the daughter of a Jewish mother and Muslim father. (He has joked that while his wife and father-in-law fast for Yom Kippur and Ramadan, respectively, he gorges on samosas.)

He is not his family’s only overachiever. His younger brother, Vinit, sold his company, Quidsi (which owns Diapers.com), to Amazon.com in 2010 for $540 million. Preet likes to joke that the windfall prompted his mother to call the mother of Sanjay Gupta, the doctor, writer and TV medical correspondent, and say, “Eat your heart out.”

Bharara dipped his toe into politics early, volunteering in a local New York election before working for private firms. He joined the federal prosecutor’s office in 2000, working on organized crime and drug cases. His buddy Lawsky suggested him to Schumer's shop in 2005. In the Senate, he helped lead the investigations into the Bush administration’s firings of U.S. attorneys, which precipitated the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Bharara’s arrests over the last week have been bipartisan and bicameral, going after Republicans and Democrats in the New York Senate and Assembly.

As active a week as Bharara has had, Robert M. Morgenthau, the former longtime district attorney in Manhattan and, before that, U.S. attorney, recalled that he, too, put away New York politicians. Corruption, said the 93-year-old law enforcement institution, is not exactly a new phenomenon. “Unfortunately, nothing new under the sun,” he said, adding that “it takes more than one case to clean up Albany.”

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