Opinion

A bane of corruption: The legacy of Preet Bharara

Photo by Andrew Kist

Preet Bharara’s tenure as the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York has now come to an end, which is a disappointment to many New Yorkers who followed his work and admired his hard-charging style. For those of us who work in the public integrity field, however, the silver lining and major takeaway from this news is that Bharara’s strong legacy of fighting corruption should endure for years to come.

The most obvious way for a prosecutor to be impactful is to bring worthwhile cases and win convictions. Bharara and his team have accomplished this in spades. Over the past seven years, the Southern District prosecuted numerous high-profile public officials from both political parties, including two of New York’s famous “three men in a room”: former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. The third member of that triumvirate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has also been investigated by Bharara’s office, leading to an indictment against members of the governor’s inner circle last year. These blockbuster cases are worthy of the headlines they have generated.

Of course, with its rich pool of talented prosecutors, winning cases is par for the course in the Southern District of New York. So what else did Bharara do to move the needle favorably on corruption in New York?

First, the aggressiveness with which Bharara approached corruption cases went beyond the cases themselves. When Cuomo abruptly disbanded his own Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption – a move that many believed was tied to the commission’s investigations getting too close to Cuomo himself – Bharara immediately moved in to seize the files and continue the commission’s probes. Bharara then announced that not only would his office pick up whatever the Moreland Commission had found, but he also was investigating whether Cuomo’s actions in disbanding the commission were somehow illegal. This effort never led to charges, but it served notice in a very public way that Bharara would counter interference with independent oversight and investigative efforts.

Bharara also spoke frequently in public, and to the press, about the public corruption scourge that pervades Albany. His outspokenness garnered occasional criticism, but there can be little question that the attention Bharara drew to the problem of public corruption in our state both informed the citizenry and energized advocates for clean government. Importantly in this regard, Bharara did not say one thing and then appear to do another. Unlike politicians who set forth ambitious ethics reform plans only to scale them back dramatically later, or let them fizzle in favor of other priorities, Bharara kept his message and his actions consistent: zero tolerance for those who violate the public trust.

At the same time, Bharara understood that he had a limited role in solving New York’s corruption problem, never suggesting that strong enforcement of the criminal laws was the only, or even the best way of proceeding. He made it clear that preventing corruption must start with fixing the rules that governed public officials and the culture that immersed them, the first of which the U.S. attorney had no impact on, and the second of which he could affect only indirectly. With the credibility that he gained in speaking so widely and so openly about these issues, Bharara used his platform to shine a bright light on the critical problem of corruption in our state and the serious damage corruption does to our government institutions.

In the end, Bharara and his colleagues have a stellar track record of corruption prosecutions; numerous politicians were brought to justice in the last seven years, and that is a good thing. But to me, Bharara’s legacy in this area is more about the tone he set with his aggressive stance towards prosecuting corruption offenses, and for his willingness to lead the continuing discussion about the importance of ensuring the integrity of our public servants. In that regard, while Bharara will be missed, I hope he also will be long remembered.

Jennifer Rodgers is the executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School and was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2000-2013.

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