NEW YORK – The interview on public radio in April, a long-planned event to discuss a range of topics, seemed like a garden-variety appearance for Preet Bharara, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
The magnitude of the moment, however, came into quick focus. As Bharara attacked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s decision to disband an anti-corruption commission, five of his staff members and several forensic computer specialists arrived at the commission’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan to copy hard drives and haul out documents through a service elevator.
The sequence of events, unfolding over a little more than an hour, set up an extraordinary public clash between two of New York’s most powerful Democrats.
Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, later learned that the Cuomo administration had asked some of the commission’s members to issue public statements characterizing the commission’s operation.
“Just speaking broadly, any time there’s a suggestion of political meddling with an investigative body, however that investigative body was set up, that is going to cause alarm and should cause alarm,” Bharara said in one of several recent interviews coinciding with the fifth anniversary of his taking office Aug. 13.
Bharara directed his office to send a letter threatening to investigate the Cuomo administration for possible obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
Bharara’s tenure has touched on many of the biggest story lines in New York: Sweeping civil rights violations at the Rikers Island jail complex. Gang violence and cyberattacks. The terrorism conviction of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law.
On Wall Street, Bharara has secured an 85-1 record in pursuit of insider trading. He also indicted Switzerland’s oldest private bank and helped extract a guilty plea from a giant French financial institution.
In Albany, Bharara has found another generous target: He has convicted more than a dozen lawmakers on corruption charges. “Some of the things that we’ve seen out of Albany and elsewhere are, quite frankly, appalling,” he said.
And now, even though Cuomo has said that the anti-corruption panel, known as the Moreland Commission, was never supposed to be independent because it was an entity he created and controlled, Bharara has taken the cases the commission was forced to abandon. Bharara said that in consultation with Richard B. Zabel, his deputy, he decided to discuss the commission’s closing in some detail on the radio; he said they felt the public had a right to know why Bharara’s office was seizing the files.
That day in April, Bharara’s investigators arrived at the commission’s offices in three unmarked cars, parking in a garage out of public sight, according to a person briefed on the matter. They left about 90 minutes later carrying boxes of materials and a formal letter from the commission referring its open cases to his office.
“If it is going to disband, then someone has got to do the work, and it shouldn’t be left to wither on the vine,” Bharara said, declining to discuss specifics of the investigation. “Speaking mildly obliquely, I don’t see a lot of legislative hearings going on about anything relating to public corruption in Albany,” he added.
During his tenure, Bharara has barnstormed the public speaking circuit, accepting invitations to graduate schools and media conferences. Time magazine placed him on its cover with the title “This Man Is Busting Wall St.” This March, he attended Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscar party in Los Angeles.
Bharara’s embrace of the media spotlight has bred widespread speculation about his ambitions – that he might run for public office or agree, if asked, to be U.S. attorney general. At the same time, some of his cases have spurred debate, in the defense bar and judiciary, about whether Bharara’s office occasionally overreaches in charging decisions and courtroom tactics.
Gerald L. Shargel, a defense lawyer whose clients have included high-profile politicians charged by the office, said Bharara was “an effective prosecutor” who had “done well” in his job.
“But I think that the complaints about him are rooted in the idea that he’s also done well for himself,” Shargel added. “People believe that the U.S. attorney position is not at the limits of his horizon.”
In the interviews, Bharara, 45, ruled out a political future. “I have no interest and desire to seek political office,” he said. Pressed further, he emphasized, “Now or ever.”
The only job he fought for, he said, was an assistant U.S. attorney’s position in the office he now runs. He took the job in 2000, handling narcotics and organized crime cases, after spending a few years working as a young associate at white-shoe law firms.
“I’m not sure I have a taste for private practice,” he said. “My concern is I’m not sure I have a taste for anything but this.”
As for his trip to Hollywood, he said he attended Vanity Fair’s Oscar party because a nominated movie, “Captain Phillips,” was based on another of his office’s big cases: the prosecution of a Somali pirate. “I was the biggest dork at that event,” Bharara said.
Bharara, who peppers his speeches with self-deprecating humor, cracked at another event last year that his recent “undeserving” media attention made him think that “this is what it must feel like to be a Kardashian.”
Bharara’s friends said privately that he relished the spotlight. They also note that Bharara, who has three children, has earned a government salary for 14 years, and could eventually seek a job in the private arena. (His brother and a business partner sold a startup Internet diaper company for about $540 million to Amazon.com; Bharara said he held only a small investment in the company.)
“For as long as his family can afford it, his place is at the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Viet D. Dinh, a former senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush. Dinh, a friend of Bharara’s since their college days at Harvard, added, “I am confident that Preet has no political aspirations, and I am glad of it for my Republican Party.”
No case, perhaps, touched Bharara as personally as his office’s prosecution of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested in Manhattan last year on charges related to her treatment of an Indian domestic worker.
Indian politicians denounced Bharara, describing him as a “self-loathing Indian,” an “Uncle Tom” and worse.
Bharara – a naturalized American citizen who was born in Ferozepur, India – acknowledged that the episode took a toll on his family.
It was not the first time Bharara ignited international outrage. Russia banned him over the prosecution of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“You could do a whole article on just the places that I can’t go,” Bharara joked. “Russia. Switzerland.” He paused. “Albany.”