Prosecutor making mark with Wall Street crackdown
NEW YORK – Preet Bharara was a newly appointed U.S. attorney when he added his own twist to a signature Hollywood line to put Wall Street on notice.
"Sometimes," he said in touting a massive securities case, "greed is not good."
A year later, Bharara hasn't let up in his pursuit of real-life Gordon Gekkos.
Making broad use of wiretaps — routine in mob and drug cases, but groundbreaking in white-collar probes — the Manhattan prosecutor has widened an investigation of hedge funds and other financial institutions suspected of insider trading. The latest arrest came Wednesday, the same day a judge rejected a defense challenge to the wiretap tactic.
Amid the crackdown, the 42-year-old Bharara has displayed a trademark tenacity tempered by humility — a combination that's won admirers inside and outside the nation's largest U.S. attorney's office.
"I think he really does appreciate the power of the office and he's not going to waste it," said Eric Snyder, who has worked at a Washington law firm since leaving the New York office in June. "There's outrage out there. He represents the people and he's going to react to what people are outraged by."
Born in Ferozepur, India, Bharara immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1970 as an infant. He spent his childhood in Monmouth County, N.J., and came away a fan of local hero Bruce Springsteen.
He graduated from Harvard in 1990 and Columbia Law School in 1993, and worked in private practice until 2000, when he became an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan. Five years later, he became U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer's chief counsel, helping to lead the investigation into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys under President George W. Bush.
Bill Burck, a former federal prosecutor himself in Manhattan who worked as Bush's deputy White House counsel while Bharara was investigating the firings of prosecutors, said Bharara "comes across as extremely professional and apolitical. He's viewed by Republicans as a very fair-minded guy who is not motivated by partisanship."
Burck said Bharara's likability stems partly from his sharp wit.
"He's one of the funniest people you'll ever meet. He disarms people with his humor and is very self-deprecating. That combination is extremely effective," he said.
Publicly, Bharara goes out of way to credit his 200 assistant prosecutors for a string of recent successes. Behind the scene, he's shown them his sense of humor by putting together a self-deprecating video montage of news broadcasters' tortured pronunciations of his name. (It's bah-RAHR'-ah.)
A review of his speeches and his remarks at his swearing-in reception in the Manhattan federal courthouse also revealed a deep devotion to family. During the swearing in, he choked up as he told about his father's sacrifices, which included living in a small Indian village home that lacked basic plumbing and coming to America with only a few dollars in his pocket.
"He will never be more proud of me than I am of him," he said as his family, including his father, watched.
Seconds later, he vowed to honor the obligations of his new job, including to resign, if necessary, over principle; to resist even overwhelming public pressure to do the wrong thing; to banish politics from deliberation and decision-making; to admit mistakes, even if they are embarrassing; to view defendants and victims alike with dignity and self-worth; and to value fairness over cleverness and justice over victory.
He also warned the prosecutors he leads that they might get to know his three children on Halloween.
"They will be coming to ask you for candy," he said. "Lots of candy."
In the year since, he's led the continuing probe of the collapse of Bernard Madoff's multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme and the prosecution of the Times Square bomber and the first trial of a Guantanamo detainee, along with numerous white-collar cases.
With great fanfare — including the nod to the "Wall Street" movie franchise starring Michael Douglas as Gekko, a no-holds-barred financier — Bharara announced in October 2009 the prosecution of what he called the largest hedge fund insider trading scheme in history.
Since then, 14 of the 23 people arrested in the probe have pleaded guilty, with many of them cooperating. The investigation has led in many ways to the new insider trading probe, an outgrowth Bharara had forecast that day when he said, "Today, tomorrow, next week, the week after, privileged Wall Street insiders who are considering breaking the law will have to ask themselves one important question: Is law enforcement listening?"
Deputy U.S. Attorney Boyd Johnson said he admires his boss and close friend for the personal touch he brings to the job.
"He spends a lot of time walking the halls late at night, on the weekends, speaking to the prosecutors about their cases and their lives," Johnson said.
Yet, he added: "He doesn't have a very high opinion of himself. He's a confident guy but self-deprecating. He jokes around with the assistants a lot, which I think they enjoy and appreciate."
Burck said he is confident the attention Bharara is getting will not affect his aspirations.
"If he was offered attorney general, I think he'd keep his job," Burck said. "He's not a guy about titles or prestige. This is not a stepping stone for him. This is what he wants to be."