I first realized the power of Preet Bharara’s office on April 2, 2013.
That morning, the New York Post carried a front page story about how two Queens elected officials, New York City Councilman Dan Halloran and state Sen. Malcolm Smith, were about to be charged in a stunning bribery scheme connected to Smith’s quixotic musings about running for mayor. The Post knew when and where the arrests would take place, the names of everyone to be arrested, key details about the complaint and where the two pols would be arraigned.
The story hit newsstands on the same morning the two men – who were later convicted – were arrested. Had Halloran and Smith gotten ahold of a newspaper early enough, they could have read about their own arrests before they happened.
As Bharara has carried out his crusade against Albany and municipal malfeasance, I’ve looked on with equal parts admiration and unease. While there’s plenty to celebrate about the way he has pursued political corruption like a wolf after a bloody lamb shank, I find myself increasingly wary of his tactics. We imagine prosecutors as existing somehow above the realm of politics, Godlike in their purity and ability to render judgment. But they too belong to the political firmament, especially in Bharara’s case. The former Chuck Schumer aide’s bias is non-partisan in nature; he indicts Democrats and Republicans with equal fervor. Rather, his pursuit of justice has a showman’s quality, like it’s all just a preamble to run for higher office.
Even if it isn’t, that’s how it seems.
I am struck by the number of news organizations that, like the Post in 2013, publish minute details of ongoing investigations that should only be known to the U.S. attorney’s office. Before former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was charged with a crime, we knew exactly what prosecutors were probing. What if a politician scrutinized by Bharara is actually innocent? Where would he go to get his reputation back, especially after news organizations had breathlessly reported on investigations and indictments as if they were convictions? Why hasn’t Bharara tried to crack down on these leaks, especially considering how zealously the Department of Justice has tried to tamp down on leaks within the agency?
There’s plenty of wonderful criminal justice reporting that leads to legitimate convictions. Not all reporters wait on their hands for Bharara to hand them scoops, and we know that indictments do constitute real news. But it’s clear that Bharara, in his public comments and the way he interacts with the press, can be more than accommodating. Building a case against a politician appears to involve more than just gathering evidence: it’s leaking, bit by bit, hints of wrongdoing to the media, and turning public opinion against the pol. How can a juror see a case clearly when there’s been a nonstop drumbeat of headlines fomented by a leak-happy U.S. attorney’s office? All the while Bharara himself, ever cheeky, gives public talks skewering Albany. (The federal judge for the Silver case, Valerie Caproni, once reprimanded Bharara for his loose lips.)
During a particularly boastful press conference in 2015, Bharara asserted that Silver wielded “titanic power” in Albany. The same could be said for Bharara in the almighty Southern District, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester. There are few checks on the conduct of federal prosecutors, especially those who hail from the “sovereign district,” as it’s jokingly called. The resources of the office are almost endless – if Bharara decides to investigate you, you’re all but dead unless you have the deep pockets to fight back. In theory, the Justice Department provides oversight, but criminal justice observers know Southern District prosecutors can be rogue actors if they want to be.
As Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in his recent New Yorker profile of Bharara, the swaggering prosecutor is known for his use of “speaking complaints,” which describe alleged crimes in almost novelistic fashion. Other U.S. attorneys are not so verbose. Imagine being the defendant, believing you’re innocent, and finding your name in one of these melodramas. It’s game over.
Bharara hails from a tradition of U.S. attorneys who crave the spotlight. There was Rudolph Giuliani, who blatantly used the perch to run for New York City mayor, and Chris Christie, who did the same on his way to the New Jersey governor’s mansion. Bharara plays coy about what he wants to do next. We do know he likes to be seen and heard. As one Assembly Democrat complained in the Daily News, Bharara is “nothing but a politician with a badge.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Just look at U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, or Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey. They rarely say more than needs to be said, and justice is carried out anyway.
In Watchmen, the seminal 1980s comic book series about a team of flawed crime fighters, there is one member, Dr. Manhattan, who is effectively immortal. He can dissolve armored tanks, travel to outer space and see into the future. Though no character asks the question directly, it’s scrawled on walls throughout the fictional world: “Who watches the Watchmen?”
Like Dr. Manhattan, Bharara is blessed with immense power. The question is: Who’s watching him?
Ross Barkan is a journalist from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in such publications as the New York Observer, Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Salon and Harvard Review.