Meet Preet Bharara: New York's Highest-Profile Prosecutor

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court was sentenced to life in prison this week – a sigh of relief for prosecutors who had failed to get him convicted on 284 out of 285 charges.

The case has been one of the most important prosecutions so far for Preet Bharara – the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.  Bharara is barely 1-1/2 years into his tenure, and even though he’s one of the most powerful people in New York, he’s still one of the least known.  Even the press still has trouble pronouncing his name.

But there are plenty of individuals who’d like to tell you about him – some of them people you wouldn’t expect to be fans. Manhattan defense lawyer Ron Kuby, a courtroom fixture for more than 30 years, has had his share of bitter confrontations with previous U.S. Attorneys. But he said Bharara’s different.

“You expect federal prosecutors to make all kinds of enemies,” Kuby said, “and the extraordinary story here is you have a man who has taken over the most high-profile and powerful United States Attorney’s job in the entire country, and everyone – across the political spectrum – admires, respects and likes the guy.”

A High School Kid’s Conviction

If you want to understand Bharara, people close to him said to go back to 1986, his senior year of high school. Go back to a small, tightly run place in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, called The Ranney School, where all the boys had to wear blue blazers and gray slacks. 

Barbara Tomlinson taught Bharara American History and American Literature there, but she now calls herself his first client.  She said he stuck his neck out for her like no student ever did.  Here was this blue-eyed Indian kid with everything to lose – valedictorian of his high school class, editor of the school paper and an admission ticket to Harvard.  Then one day, Tomlinson got fired for insubordination.

“Preet was very upset about this,” said Tomlinson, who didn’t want to comment specifically on why she got fired, “and he came to me and said, ‘Well, you know, the students should do something.  You’re one of the best teachers in the school.’  And I sat him down and I said, ‘No.’  I think by that point he’d been already accepted at Harvard.  I said, ‘You don’t know what this might do to that.’”

But Bharara didn’t listen. He rallied a group of other students and together they strode into the office of a headmaster everyone feared.  They demanded that Tomlinson get her job back.

“Here was a young man who was interested in having the right thing happen and trying to figure out, could we fix it?” Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson didn’t get her job back.  But what she noticed about Bharara is a theme that ran through dozens of other interviews with Bharara’s friends, peers, former supervisors and even critics: a strong sense of right and wrong.

A Whirlwind First Year and a Half

Bharara oversees more than 200 lawyers handling many of the country’s most important cases in terrorism, organized crime, public corruption and financial fraud.  In just the last year, the office secured a life sentence for the Times Square bomber and more than a dozen guilty pleas in what’s expected to be one of the largest insider trading probes in history. 

The office also indicted drug kingpin Christopher Coke and legendary arms dealer Viktor Bout.  And this month, it charged 26 members of the Gambino family in the biggest mob take-down ever in New York.

But despite the headline-grabbing cases, Bharara doesn’t relish talking to reporters.  He didn’t want to be interviewed for this profile, so he sent his friend of 18 years and his No. 2 at the office, Boyd Johnson III.

“You know, he’s a humble guy, Preet.  He’s a very modest guy.  This job that he has as the U.S. Attorney really isn’t about him,” said Johnson.

The Path To U.S. Attorney

Bharara was born in the state of Punjab in India.  His parents named him Preetinder, a Sikh name that means “the one who loves God.”  But everyone calls him Preet.  He likes to say his family comes from four faiths: His father is Sikh, his mother Hindu, his wife’s father is Muslim and her mother, Jewish.

In his public appearances, Bharara takes the podium with a formal, often stiff, air.  But friends say he’s the first guy with a witty come-back, the first guy you’d invite out for drinks.  (His standby is a Ketel One vodka and tonic, with lime).  And Johnson said Bharara is as crazy about Bruce Springsteen as he is.  If he had to pick out one song by the Boss that embodies Bharara, he’d say “Born to Run.”

“Well because, he has a great sense of urgency about him,” said Johnson.  “I mean, not to be too serious, but he thinks that we’re called to do things.  And that’s a calling that is urgent.”

Bharara’s path to that calling started at Harvard, then to Columbia Law School, and eventually, to a job as Chief Counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer.  There, he was instrumental in helping the Judiciary Committee investigate the Bush administration’s firing of eight U.S. Attorneys.  It was no surprise to anyone when Schumer recommended Bharara to be Manhattan’s next U.S. Attorney.


Barely a year into his new job, the office took some heat when Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad wasn’t brought to court after his arrest. Usually a defendant appears before a judge within 48 hours. Ron Kuby said Bharara’s tenure has been exemplary, but this incident really disturbed him.

“This was an American citizen, on American soil, taken off an airplane and simply made to disappear for two weeks,” said Kuby.

Prosecutors later explained Shahzad had quietly waived his rights and agreed to cooperate with investigators without a lawyer.  Bharara’s office maintains the decision not to present Shahzad right away was correct under the law.  Still, civil libertarians said the office bent the rules and shouldn’t have kept Shahzad away from a judge for so long.

Financial Fraud

Elsewhere, Bharara’s aggressiveness has been applauded.  The financial press recently dubbed him the “New Sheriff of Wall Street” for his extensive insider trading probe.  But people close to these cases say giving Bharara that kind of credit is a bit misplaced.  First, the investigation began long before he ever became U.S. Attorney.  Second, the lauded use of wiretaps in the cases wasn’t originally his call.  Those wiretaps started a year and a half before his tenure.

Some speculate that insider trading is where Bharara wants to make his mark. But Rich Zabel, who’s supervising the investigations, disagrees. He said the office isn’t gunning for some kind of an insider trading legacy.

“There’s so much written about it, and there’s so much press attention to it, that sort of translates into, ‘Oh, that must be the legacy that we want the office to be known for or that Preet is always talking about,’ but that’s not in fact what happens. It sort of generates itself,” said Zabel.

The Financial Crisis

So far, Wall Street watchers say Bharara’s office has been wimping out on punishing any major bank or executive for the missteps that triggered the recession. The thinking is, if there’s any office positioned to bring a prosecution, it would be the one located right next to Wall Street. But last month, Johnson said what people want doesn’t matter, if there’s no actual evidence of criminal conduct.

“We can’t just go get indictments because the public is demanding indictments. I mean that would be incredibly irresponsible of us to do,” said Johnson.  “Just because there’s a cry for scalps in any area is not going to mean that Preet is going to submit to that.”

Congress released a 600-page report Thursday laying some blame on Wall Street for the financial collapse.  It said banks ignored warning signs and continued pushing risky investments.  And reportedly, the panel handed some evidence over to prosecutors for possible investigations.

Bharara’s office wouldn’t comment on whether the report will actually launch any new cases.  And as people wait to see what he’ll do, former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White has this piece of advice:  don’t listen to the political windstorm.

“Your job is to do the right thing in every situation,” said White, who gave Bharara his first job as a federal prosecutor 11 years ago.  “In the Southern District in particular, which is older than the United States Department of Justice, there’s a long tradition of autonomy and independence, and it is critical that the U.S. Attorney embody those traits.  And clearly Preet does.”

Of course, if Bharara does bring a successful Big Bank prosecution one day, people say he will truly make a name for himself.  And maybe then, everyone will finally remember how to pronounce it. 


Ailsa Chang/WNYC
Boyd Johnson III is Deputy U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He and Bharara first met as associates at the law firm Gibson Dunn 18 years ago.


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Comments [14]

John Baxter from Rockaway NYC

The Arverne Urban Renewal Boondoggle.
You would think that all the articles I wrote about the 308 acres of ocean front property in Rockaway, and naming names that someone would have responded. Not a word. As they say in Ireland. “As quiet as a church mouse.” I mentioned Mike Bloomberg. He was the one that approved the deal for the development to begin. I mentioned Rev. Floyd Flake. He was the one allegedly gave the endorsement to Emperor Mike when he first ran for Mayor, and he was the one with all the friends in Congress with the know how to get grants. Friends like Alfonse D’Amato. Flake’s buddy Malcolm, wants to be mayor, Smith played a big part in the development. Another Flake buddy, our Congressman Gregory Meeks was a key player. Now Gregory has an office on the main thoroughfare a block long with his name on it that looks like two blocks long right smack in the heart of the 308 acres. Nice. There are other players like James Sanders now running for the senate. There are others but that is enough for now. What they all have in common is that every single one I mentioned knows that the Arverne Project is totally illegal and violates the Coastal Zone Management act of 1972, CZMA. I also mentioned State Attorney General Erik Schneiderman, but Erik wrote that my complaint didn’t warrant an investigation, not even if there is no record of the developer paying a single penny for the 308 acres. I believe he teamed up with the church mice.

Jan. 27 2014 10:53 AM
Arun Bishnoi from India

In case of Indian diplomat case please check her connection with Taliban and Al Quida.
We Indian are with you. Only corrupt bureaucrats in India making all fuss.

Dec. 20 2013 05:49 PM
arnulfo valadez from california

This is a comment for PREET BHARARA i have this issue about this fund of $7,300,000.00 PLEASE CONTACT ME I LOOSE ALTO OF MONEY E MAIL

Aug. 12 2013 01:14 PM
laura merchant from california

Mr Preet Bharara, please tell me why if you are a victium of wells fargo why aren't you listing to victiums. I am a victium two times where is are help. Would love to talk to you.

Oct. 10 2012 09:35 AM
Bryan Bentley from USA

Preet is a lowlife lapdog for the Democratic Party. The reason he stays as far out of the limelight as possible is that he needs as much plausible deniability as possible for some of the ways he has twisted the law to suit his masters Schumer & Obama...

Feb. 25 2012 01:14 AM
Herbert Verbeke from Belgium

I'm from Europe and I like to know what you and Mr. Preet Bahrara and Mr. Boyd Johnson III can do for me in a case of shocking suppression of free speech by WIX company in New York City USA.

Details here : WIX-COM.INFO.

Thanks in advance.

Jan. 26 2012 02:09 PM
Herbert Verbeke from Belgium

Hi, I'm from Europe and I like to know what Mr. Preet Bahrara and Mr. Boyd Johnson III can do for me in a case of shocking suppression of free speech by WIX company in New York City USA. Details here : WIX-COM.INFO. Thanks in advance.

Jan. 26 2012 01:40 PM
John Baxter from Rockaway Beach

John Baxter
State Committeeman
Independence Party
23rd Assembly District Queens, NY
160 Beach 116th Street
Rockaway Park, NY 11694

November 14th 2003

Mayor Michael Bloomberg
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Dear Mayor:

I was discussing the development of Arverne by The Sea with Queens County Chairman, Independence Party, Gerald Everett, and he advised me to write to you.

In the near future you will be called upon to give the OK to the Arverne by The Sea project in Rockaway. 308 acres of land just wasting away for almost 40 years is finally going to be developed. I have lived here for almost the same amount of time and I have witnessed many proposed projects fall by the way side over the years. The reasons were never revealed, except to say that the times were bad, the economy wasn’t right at the time. On and on the excuses went. Now we face another obstacle. All of Rockaway Beach is a Coastal Zone Boundary and any new development has to be consistent with the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. The City Planning Commission signed an agreement with the Federal Government to carry out the coastal laws. I believe the vehicle the Planning Commission uses is the New Waterfront Revitalization Program.

The most important part of the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 is to keep and enhance existing Public Access and Visual Corridors to the water. The Arverne by The Sea project calls for the closing of 46 streets and denying Public Access and Visual Corridors to the ocean in many areas. I am asking to meet with one of your assistants and supply him or her with documented evidence. It could save a lot of time and inform you about the coastal rules and regulations which many here are not aware of. That includes the developer. For some reason Community Board 14 is not aware of the federal laws they are supposed to follow and never took them into consideration when they gave the OK to the development. I await your response


John Baxter

Jul. 20 2011 11:42 PM
John Baxter from Rockaway Beach

Dear Mr. Baxter:

I am replying to the email you sent to Mayor Bloomberg regarding the Arverne Urban Renewal Area in the Rockaways. I regret that you are concerned that the project known as Arverne by the Sea did not receive a proper review for consistency under the New York City Waterfront Revitalization Program. I assure you that the application, which was approved by the City Planning Commission on November 3, 2003, was reviewed by the Department of City Planning for consistency with the policies of the New York City Waterfront Revitalization Policies, pursuant to The New York State Waterfront Revitalization and Coastal Resources Act of 1981. The application was determined to be consistent with the policies of the New York City Waterfront Revitalization Program, as stated in the Commission’s approval on the referenced date above.

I hope this information has been helpful. Your interest in the future of the Rockaways community is appreciated.


Wilbur L. Woods
Director of Waterfront and Open Space Division

Jul. 20 2011 11:39 PM
bill fritz from Hot Springs Arkansas

48 states allow gambling,all internet sites pay no tax on sales.Singling out internet poker because of Frist's earmark bill tying internet poker to terrism is a total mistake.No other moralistic laws protect minors and addicts by forbidding others from participating.Your action mirrors China's ban on internet .change the law adopt taxation and legalize internet poker.

Apr. 24 2011 10:01 PM
Pist In Ny

Glad my taxes are paying for Preet's bullsh*t vendetta against poker sites. If the same d-bags hadn't forced these domains to operate overseas because they weren't getting a big enough slice, the alleged underhanded actions by a small few (Daniel Tzvetkoff) would be a non-issue. Don't you have better things to do with my tax dollars?!?!

Apr. 17 2011 04:08 PM

this is complete and utter horsesht. Nice bluff piece.

Apr. 16 2011 09:23 AM
Jack from Manhattan

Who replaced my usual WNYC with this fluff piece?

More facts, less fuzzy-wuzzy.

Jan. 29 2011 01:22 PM

I was very impressed with the strong recommendations for independent judgment and integrity that were contained in Mr. Bharara's character references.
It gives me some hope that the investigation / prosecution of the NY City Council Embezzlement Scandal will be properly done.
Is there any way to ask if he expects his office to be done with the matter before the statute of limitations has run?

Jan. 28 2011 12:44 PM

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