Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, chats in his Manhattan office library. (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Preet Bharara’s office is not anyplace a guilty person wants to be, so you search your conscience and wipe your sweaty forehead before entering. The most powerful prosecutor in the country, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, occupies a four-square chamber flooded with relentless governmental ceiling light, which makes his charcoal suit all the darker and his white shirt, so stiff it could pour itself a glass of water, all the whiter.

This is not a room where the sly or evasive can hide, much less morally leukemic billionaires, Chinese gangland shooters, bare-knuckle traders or rainmaking political bosses. All of whom Bharara has indicted, including some members of the Democratic Party that appointed him.

Not that he cares. You know what doesn’t scare him?

“Guys in suits,” he says. “Politicians? Not scary.”

Bharara’s aggressive prosecutions are earning him a reputation as a fiercely effective and limelight-loving figure in an office already legendary as the strongest arm of the Justice Department. “A petulant rooster,” defense attorneys called him in a recent court filing on behalf of an accused inside trader.

He is hardly the first feathered bird to hold the position. Among his predecessors are former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and Bharara’s mentors, SEC Commissioner Mary Jo White and FBI Director James B. Comey. Yet even in that company Bharara has shone, winning a series of dramatic convictions that he announces to the public with a delivery that is one part righteous lawman and one part nervy wit fueled by Diet Cokes and Doritos. Imagine, Comey says, “if Jon Stewart was a prosecutor.”

Once, Bharara opened a speaking engagement before a roomful of financial traders by saying, “I just want to apologize in advance that I don’t have enough subpoenas for all of you.” As the audience broke out in laughter, he said, “I’m just kidding.” Pause. “I do have enough.”

Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was convicted by Bharara’s team in 2010. (Anonymous/

Former Galleon hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam was imprisoned for insider trading in 2011. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

No target is apparently too big for him. He is currently investigating the National Football League over painkiller abuses and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) over the closure of an ethics commission. The Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, a Russian arms trafficker, a Somali pirate, the money-laundering former president of Guatemala and Galleon Group billionaire Raj Rajaratnam are just a few who have been convicted by Bharara’s team of elite prosecutors, many of whom left seven-figure careers in white-shoe firms to work with him. They have pursued investigations in over 40 countries.

“They’re the sheriffs of the world,” says defense attorney Peter Quijano, who defended Guantanamo Bay detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani against more than 280 terrorism charges brought by Bharara’s office.

That record has earned Bharara the cover of Time magazine and a place in the pages of Vanity Fair as a New Establishment power broker, “Wall Street’s most fearsome foe.” As well as an invitation to Vanity Fair’s Oscars party.

But it also got him recently reversed on appeal for overreaching in the insider-trading case of Anthony Chiasson, and personally sued by Chiasson’s fellow hedge funder David Ganek, who claims an improper office raid ruined his business. And it has made Bharara persona non grata in the country of his birth, India.

A naturalized citizen, Bharara was born in the northwestern city of Firozpur in 1968 and came to the United States as a 2-year-old with his parents — which did not prevent him from arresting and charging India’s deputy consul general, Devyani Khobragade, for mistreatment of a domestic worker last year. Indian diplomats reacted with outrage, calling him a “self-loathing” traitor to his heritage, and an embarrassed State Department had to bail out Khobragade with diplomatic immunity.

“Everyone should understand that our motivation is always to do the right thing, and we don’t pull our punches, and we don’t care who you are,” Bharara says, unapologetically.

He is sitting in an upright leather-upholstered chair in an otherwise bureaucratically spare office. His tone is habitually dispassionate, but his words tend to be uncompromising, and the fact that he has a flag and a Justice Department seal on the wall behind him lends him any needed emphasis.

“There are too many people who think that if you are powerful and you are rich then you get a bye, and you get treated with kid gloves,” he adds. “That’s not true here, and we work really hard to make sure people know that’s not true.”

Nothing has earned Bharara more mixed congratulation and criticism than his very public war on political corruption. Bharara was nominated in 2009 by President Obama at the age of 40, thanks to the endorsement of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), for whom he spent four years as chief counsel.

Since then, he has indicted 17 prominent New York politicians for malfeasance — 10 of them Democrats. In January, he charged Sheldon Silver, the powerful Democratic speaker of the state Assembly, with extortion and bribery.

Former New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver is surrounded Feb. 24 by the media as he leaves a federal courthouse. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

At a news conference, he decried Silver’s “greedy art of self-reward” and pronounced the entire state capitol a “cauldron of corruption.” He also advised observers to “stay tuned” because more is to come.

That performance earned a filing from Silver’s attorneys, who seek to dismiss the charges, claiming Bharara’s “inflammatory” comments deprived Silver of the presumption of innocence. It also got him a harsh public scolding from Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace University’s law school in White Plains, N.Y., who wrote a book on prosecutorial misconduct.

“Prosecutors have a strict obligation not to engage in extrajudicial commentary that can have the potential to prejudice a jury,” says Gershman, who acknowledges he is a friend and occasional collaborator with one of Silver’s defense attorneys. “Apparently he likes grandstanding, and showboating, and he does like to talk. And he’s very good at it.”

Other legal scholars say Bharara’s remarks are not extraordinary for a federal prosecutor whose job is to put high-profile indictments on display to the public in the name of deterrence. As New York University legal ethics professor Stephen Gillers observes, “Compared to Giuliani, he’s a wallflower.”

Critics can quarrel with Bharara’s style, but it’s difficult to find anyone who quarrels with his substance. Former bosses Comey and White commend his political courage. “He’s put a very strong independent stamp on the office,” White says.

Another Bharara admirer is conservative legal scholar and former deputy attorney general Viet D. Dinh, a chief author of the Patriot Act and an old friend. “We come at it from different bases, but we both have an abiding belief that what you do in law enforcement has to be void of and above political considerations,” Dinh says. “That has got to be your number one rule of operation, and he has that in spades.”

But the party that admires Bharara’s mouth the most? The press. “Keep Talking, Mr. Bharara,” the New York Observer said in a headline.

‘Compass for fairness’

Preet Bharara’s parents — Jagdish Bharara and his mother, Desh — at the Taj Mahal. (Family photo)

The righteous streak first showed itself in grade school, over the matter of an American flag. Each morning, Preet Bharara dutifully recited the Pledge of Allegiance with his class. But he began to notice he was the only boy never chosen to be flag bearer.

He also was the only boy of color in the room. He waited for his turn to hold the Stars and Stripes and lead the singsong chant about “justice for all,” but it never came.

His immigrant parents were idealists about America, so when Bharara went to them about the flag, his brother recalls, they complained to the teacher. On his next report card he got unsatisfactory marks. His parents promptly pulled him from the school.

“He has this compass for fairness, and from an early age he had that,” says his younger brother Vinit, an entrepreneur who founded the Internet company Quidsi, which he sold to Amazon for over $500 million. “He keeps it still, and he’s got power to use it. When he sees wrongs I think he wants to right them.”

Bharara’s grandparents were forced to abandon all of their property after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. His father, Jagdish, a Sikh, and his mother Desh, a Hindu, settled in New Jersey with almost no money. Jagdish, a pediatrician, told his sons vivid stories of the corruption and poverty that drove them from India. “He’s a very hard-nosed right-and-wrong guy,” says Vinit.

Over the next few years, they sponsored the immigration of 20 relatives to America. Jagdish worked multiple shifts at hospitals and clinics, and moonlighted treating jockeys at Monmouth Park racetrack, so that he could help his relatives and send his sons to private school without debt.

“A lot of problems I might have are luxury problems,” Bharara says. “My worst day in this job is about a thousand times better than my dad’s best day was then.”

Jagdish pushed his sons toward the sciences, hoping to cultivate doctors. “I had a brief period of medical and ethnic brainwashing,” Bharara says.

His father made him bring home extra specimens from his biology classes: “When other people were tossing a ball in the back yard, my dad and I were dissecting frogs and grasshoppers.”

But in his seventh-grade English class, at the private Ranney School in Tinton Falls, N.J., Bharara became fascinated by legal argument after he read the play “Inherit the Wind,” from which he can still quote dialogue. He began studying the great courtroom speeches of Clarence Darrow.

“Make yourselves colored for a little while,” Darrow told a jury in People v. Henry Sweet (1926). “It won’t hurt, you can wash it off. They can’t, but you can.” Bharara joined the debate team.

“Even at that age he was doing the whole courtroom drama thing,” Vinit recalls. He became so obsessed with fairness that he divided up the days in which he and his brother got to be in charge of the TV remote control.

Bharara won prizes for student oratory that filled the family mantel. But perhaps his most impressive speech was the valedictory address at his high school graduation: It was a defense of a favorite teacher who had been fired because of an issue with overtime pay.

“We can never forget to question, to doubt, to challenge,” Bharara said, with his headmaster sitting a few feet away. “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?”

The headmaster stalked out in the middle of it, his brother remembers.

A powerful lineage

Viet D. Dinh, left, seen at a 2007 congressional hearing, is a conservative legal scholar, former deputy attorney general, a chief author of the Patriot Act and an old friend of Preet Bharara. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Bharara honed his ability to argue at Harvard and then Columbia Law School. In his first week at Harvard, he met another young South Asian future legal star in a class titled “American Government.” His name was Viet D. Dinh, and his family had fled to the United States after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

The class discussion was about whether the Framers thought man was essentially evil and therefore government should constrain, or man was good and therefore government should foster attainment. Bharara believed in constraint.

He and Dinh began arguing, and didn’t stop.

“We argued through the class, we argued after class, we argued through the afternoon, we argued through dinner, then we shot pool and argued through that,” Dinh recalls. “We argued until the next morning at 6 a.m. We’ve been arguing ever since.”

In a sense, Bharara has continued the argument throughout his career. From the moment he left law school, his goal was to become a prosecutor in the Southern District, which to legal insiders is the ultimate terminus of excellence for trial lawyers and important cases. Holding its first session in 1789, it is the eldest court under the U.S. Constitution, predating even the Supreme Court. It’s known, sometimes sarcastically, as “the Sovereign Court,” and it has the aura of a private club. “Getting in the elevator there is like walking into a Rolex,” says Quijano, the defense attorney.

Among the judges who have sat in the Southern District are Learned Hand and Sonia Sotomayor. Titanic passengers sued the White Star Line there, and a snarling deputy prosecutor named Roy Cohn went after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg there. But perhaps more than anything, it’s known for the backbones in its lead prosecutors. In 1917, U.S. Attorney H. Snowden Marshall set the tone when he indicted a sitting member of Congress. In retaliation, Congress sent a sergeant-at-arms to arrest him at his desk for contempt. Marshall fought the case to the Supreme Court, and won.

Mary Jo White, the chairwoman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Bharara got a firsthand example of prosecutorial independence from Mary Jo White shortly after the then-U.S. attorney hired him in 2000. When President Bill Clinton issued a controversial pardon to trader Marc Rich, White promptly launched a probe, even though she owed her appointment to Clinton. White even subpoenaed the president’s brother.

Her successor, James Comey, set another example when as a deputy attorney general he famously refused to approve George W. Bush’s domestic surveillance program, though he was a Bush appointee.

Bharara cut his teeth in the general crimes unit under a ferocious Giuliani-style prosecutor named Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and is now a conservative columnist. Bharara won his first case, a gun charge, though one witness disappeared and another had a drug problem. “Barring taking the controls of an in-flight airplane, I thought I could do anything after that,” he says.

Over the next few years, he sent various heads of the Gambino and Colombo crime families to jail. McCarthy has not been surprised to see him enter the pantheon of great prosecutors. “He’s definitely carved himself into that niche of swashbuckling Manhattan U.S. attorneys,” McCarthy says.

In 2007, Bharara might have short-circuited his career when, serving as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee under Schumer, he helped investigate the dismissals of U.S. attorneys that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. (He brought in his old boss Comey for dramatic testimony.) Yet according to McCarthy, he somehow won the respect of conservatives. “When he told them something, a deal was a deal and he stuck to it,” McCarthy says.

Adapting to the times

By the time Bharara was elevated to the head of the Southern District office in 2009, the job had changed somewhat. Certain crimes had become more esoteric, between the Internet and financial instruments.

“Today I’d guess half the people he ends up prosecuting are good people who may have done something, but are not necessarily bad people,” says prominent defense attorney Ben Brafman. “Consequently the decisions he makes and the discretion he exercises is much more difficult.”

If Bharara has put a personal signature on the office, his colleagues say, it’s in recognizing these new subtleties. He created a complex fraud unit and a cybercrime unit, and he brought in young staffers fluent in the digital world. It paid off with cases like the shutdown of Silk Road, an encrypted Internet drug bazaar.

Yet he has also turned blunt old instruments like wiretaps and threat of jail sentences on white-collar wrongdoers accustomed to gentler civil-code treatment. He slapped a record $1.2 billion fine on Toyota for misleading customers about accelerator defects, the largest criminal penalty imposed on a car company in U.S. history.

His office collected $7.2 billion in fines and forfeitures in 2014, including settlements from JPMorgan Chase, and from the French bank BNP Paribas for “a tour de fraud” as he pithily put it at a news conference. “I get the billion-plus cases confused,” he jokes.

But no target seems too small for him, either. He took on the landlords of New York’s most iconic sites, including Broadway theaters, to enforce access for the disabled. He took up the cause of abused prisoners at Rikers Island prison, suing the city for excessive force by guards.

He went to bat for a service dog named Rosie, obtaining an injunction so she could stay with her owner, a depressed woman about to be evicted for violating the no-pets policy in her building. “We have a health canine practice,” he says.

“Regular people need to understand what the prosecutor’s office is doing and why it’s doing it,” Bharara adds. “You can’t just be aiming yourself at the elite and elite lawyers and the elite bar.”

Former Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s arrest for visa fraud and other charges in 2013 touched off tension between her home country and the United States. (Stringer/Reuters)

In the case of the Indian consulate, his focus was on a domestic worker who was forced to work 100 hours a week for a wage that amounted $1.42 an hour. When she tried to quit, her passport was seized. The diplomat who abused her “was a criminal,” Bharara says flatly.

But Bharara may have also brought some cases that criminalized non-criminal behavior. His office won 85 straight convictions for insider trading, by arguing that basically anyone who trades on any nonpublic information commits a crime. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York recently dealt a rebuke to that argument, overturning the convictions of traders Anthony Chiasson and Todd Newman, finding that the traders were too “removed” from the inside tipper, which may lead to other dismissals. Both men spent four years defending their reputations; a Wall Street Journal editorial called Bharara’s pursuit of them “abusive.”

Bharara has petitioned for a rehearing. And even his opponents concede that he brought the trader cases out of conviction, not pettiness. “I believe he puts his head on the pillow at night saying, ‘I’m doing the best job I can, and what I’m supposed to do, which is stamp out crime,’ ” says Chiasson’s attorney, Greg Morvillo. Though Morvillo doesn’t agree with Bharara’s decision to pursue his client, he acknowledges “a great number” of the trading cases are legitimate.

Bharara insists he’s not interested in scorekeeping guilty verdicts. Rather, he’s interested in effecting “culture change” in industries with pervasive wrongdoing. Which is why he talks so much, and so publicly: He sees it as his duty to convey where the wrong lies in complex cases so that people understand it, and don’t enable it.

Each year, Bharara makes it a point to speak at the country’s most prominent business and law schools. He delivers what he calls a “white-collar version of a scared straight program.” He tells the students, “I’m not only directing my words to the two or three of you who statistically speaking will commit serious securities fraud — although I know who you are and we will follow you.” He is directing his words to those who will “keep their mouths shut when things go wrong.”

In almost every high-profile case, he tells them, laxity and silence and enabling were complicit in wrongdoing.

“There is almost no gigantic case you can bring,” he says, “whether it’s Toyota or Bernie Madoff or the Galleon Group, where there weren’t people who were not necessarily as involved as the worst guys, but who didn’t do anything. And you can’t have it.”

On occasion, a well-heeled person in a suit will ask him, “What should I have done?”

He answers, “You should have gotten the hell out.”

Where to go from here?

Preet Bharara delivers a speech March 6 about tackling corruption at a symposium in New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

When will Bharara himself get out? Traditionally, U.S. attorneys step down with a change in administration. Bharara says he has no idea what to do with himself next, except that he’d like “meaningful” work. He could write his own ticket at any law firm, but he has spent his career in public service.

A judgeship? He may be too gregarious for that cloistered position. Or too flippant. Last year during an office banquet, he insulted federal judge Naomi Reice Buchwald after she ruled against his office on a “hearsay” issue that led to an innocent verdict. Bharara told the dinner audience that what he was about to say was “hearsay” and would “not be admissible” – and then called Buchwald “the worst federal judge” he’d ever come across.

Elected office? Possibly. Everyone asks him the question. But Comey says such speculation is based on the Giuliani career model rather than on any indication from Bharara. “I really don’t think he wants to be an elected official,” Comey says. “They’ll find that out.”

Which leaves an appointed office. Bharara was briefly mentioned on the short list of candidates to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., before the nomination went to another talented U.S. attorney from New York, Loretta Lynch. If there is a career path to study, perhaps it’s hers, or White’s, or Comey’s. Dinh believes he could still become attorney general some day — and not necessarily under a Democratic administration.

But the problem, Bharara says, is that he’s already in the only job he ever aspired to.

“I really did think it was the end-all, be-all,” he says. “I’m not thinking about what comes after. Because whatever happens in my life, it’s not going to be as great and exciting as this job.”