15 Mar

Former US attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara recovered several billion dollars in forfeiture actions, criminal fines and civil actions for the victims of frauds. He sentenced several high profile criminals, irrespective of their political affiliations.

Admittedly, it is a routine practice to dismiss former president’s political appointees. Trump administration did nothing awkward. Within a month of his taking office, 47 US attorneys resigned. The remaining 46 were asked to resign on Friday.

But, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) Preet Bharara’s dismissal was unusual. Apparently, Bharara was told to stay on after his meeting with President Trump in November last year. On Friday, however, White House asked Bharara to resign, along with other attorneys. Bharara did not. In fact, the social media savvy former attorney, he tweeted his decision not to resign. He was fired the next day, Saturday. Moments later, Bharara again took to Twitter to publicly announce that he has been sacked. Since then several news media reports are speculating on the reasons of his strange termination and plans from here on.

The 48-year-old Indian American was appointed in 2009 by the former President Barack Obama. Considered a legal Superman, Bharara’s reputation precedes him as someone who worked without fear or favor. He made judgments irrespective of political affiliations of those brought before him for prosecution.

During his seven year stint as a US attorney, Bharara handled a plethora of cases ranging from prison murders to white collar multi-billion banking frauds. He convicted more than a dozen politicians. His office spared none. From Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout to American Ponzi scheme mastermind Madoff.  He was put opposite Indian American of high stature, throughout his career as an SDNY attorney. But, Ferozpur, Punjab, -born Bharara did not budge to any pressure – private or public. Some prominent Indian Americans that he prosecuted include Rajat Gupta, Devyani Khobragade, Rajiv Goel and Anil Kumar. News media is still ablaze with his ongoing cases including that of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill De Blasio, among others.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Bharara’s career was at its peak when he initiated an investigation on an untimely disbanding of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s anticorruption panel Moreland Commission. Cuomo formed this commission in 2013, apparently, to check public corruption. However, the commission was discontinued abruptly in 2014. As per reports, the commission had served subpoenas to companies that have worked with the Governor. This did not go down well with the Governor office, adding to the commission’s woes. Bharara, upon commission’s closure, initiated investigation into the findings of the commission and its premature demise. At the time of firing, Bharara’s office was investigating some of Cuomo’s former advisers.

Insider trading by McKinsey’s former boss Rajat Gupta. Bharara prosecuted several cases of insider trading during his tenure as a federal prosecutor. The one related to Indian American Rajat Gupta is among the most prominent of his prosecutions. Gupta’s rise as a naturalized citizen was stellar. An IITian from India, Gupta graduated from the Harvard Business School with top grades and secured enviable post at the McKinsey at the age of 45. While he worked as director for Goldman Sachs Group, Gupta was convicted with allegations of insider trading in June 2012. He was found guilty and sentenced to 30-month imprisonment in October 2012. In addition, he was ordered to pay $5 million in fines. Gupta was released in January 2016, almost a year prior to the original sentence on account of good behavior.

Former Deputy Consul General of India Devyani Khobragade. Bharara’s office prosecuted the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade much to the displeasure of Indian government and Indian media. In 2013, Khobragade was arrested on charges of visa fraud and making false statements related to the work of her Indian worker, Sangeeta Richard. She was also accused of underpaying her domestic help, Richard. Post allegations and conviction, Khobragade left for India in 2014. She was later given diplomatic immunity. For Bharara, however, the trial led to personal fusillade of insensible accusations. He endured the wrath of Indian media, too. In a news media interview, Bharara said that he was even advised not to travel to India following a backlash on Khobragade’s arrest.

Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law. Bharara prosecuted a number of high-profile terrorists. In 2014, convicted Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. Ghaith was sentenced life imprisonment. Bharara also prosecuted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged conspirators in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Mohammed was charged for masterminding the terror plots and has been held in prison since 2006. Another person, a Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad who is accused for plotting the Times Square bombing was also tried by Bharara’s office in 2010. Shahzad is serving life imprisonment.

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bharara oversaw the prosecution of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. A former Soviet Air Force officer, Bout’s legend had inspired the film Lord of War in 2005. He was arrested from Bangkok in 2008. His extradition to the United States took more than two years. Bout was finally brought to law and awarded a 25-year imprisonment. Reportedly, Bharara was accused by Russian government of violating rights of foreign citizens. “You could do a whole article on just the places that I can’t go,” Bharara said jokingly in an interview to The New York Times 

Galleon Group, Rajiv Goel and Anil Kumar. Preet Bharara was pitted against Indian Americans not once but several times. Bharara’s office prosecuted, among others, Rajiv Goel of Los Altos, California, and Anil Kumar of Saratoga, California, in 2009. Goel was a former managing director at Intel Capital, an Intel subsidiary; while Kumar was a former director at McKinsey & Company. Bharara headed prosecution of what is touted as one of the largest insider trading trial in the history of the US. The scam involved more than $30 million illegal gains by leaking inside information to Raj Rajratanam, Sri Lankan-American and Galleon Group founder. Rajratanam was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2011. “In Sri Lanka I would have given the judge 50,000 rupees and he’d be sitting having dinner at my house. Here, I got my shot,” Rajratanam had told a journalist in 20011. Both Goel and Kumar pleaded guilty in 2010. Both were spared prison for turning witnesses to the fraud. They were sentenced two years’ probation in 2012.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. At the time of firing, Bharara’s office was handling trail of Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York. Blasio has been accused of lavishing government office favors to donors in return of funds for his mayoral campaigns. Allegedly, several instances of unreasonable favors were being investigated when Bharara occupied the federal office. The investigations on Blasio’s fundraising still continue.

Rikers Island’s killing of Ronald Spear. Spread over more than 400 acres, Riker Island is a jail complex in the Bronx, New York. In 2012, one of its inmate, a 52-year-old Ronald Spear, was allegedly killed by a jail guard, Brian Coll. Apparently, 47-year-old Coll killed ailing Spear by brutally kicking on his head several times. Coll was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2016. “Today, a unanimous jury in Manhattan federal court affirmed that the protections of the US Constitution extend into the walls of our prisons, including Rikers Island,” Bharara said in 2016. “As the evidence at trial established, Coll killed Spear by repeatedly kicking him in the head as he lay restrained on the ground, telling him before he died not to forget who did this to him. The FBI investigators and career prosecutors on this case did not forget. And today, neither did the jury.”

Fox New’s former boss Roger Ailes. Bharara was no different to news media. In July 2016,  a Fox News anchor alleged sexual harassment against her then boss Roger Ailes. In the next few months, few other Fox employees came forward with harassment charges against Ailes. Furthermore, there were allegations that the news channel quietly settled with employees who accused Ailes of harassment, without properly informing its shareholders about settlements. The matter is still being investigated by Bharara’s old office. Interestingly, Ailes lawyer Marc Mukasey is being considered as one of the top contenders for Bharara’s old job.

JP Morgan Chase. Bharara did not hesitate chasing major banking frauds, too. He prosecuted the JP Morgan Chase for its involvement in the Bernie Madoff fraud. Eventually, JPMorgan was criminally charged with two violations of The Bank Secrecy Act, and was made to pay $1.7 billion in 2014. This was the largest forfeiture from a bank in the US history. It was also the Department of Justice’s largest penalty for a Bank Secrecy Act violation. The funds forfeited were distributed to the victims of the Madoff fraud. “Today, the largest financial institution in the country stands charged with two criminal offenses. Institutions, not just individuals, have an obligation to follow the law and to police themselves,” Bharara said in a 2014 statement. Between January 2013 and February 2014, Bharara office had recovered nearly four billion from criminal and civil cases.

With Bharara out, the Department of Justice confirmed on March 12 that the White House can now nominate the successors of all 93 attorneys. The new attorneys are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.