U.S. Attorney Sends a Message to Wall Street
By Benjamin Weiser and Peter Lattman for The New York Times
Every few days during the trial of Raj Rajaratnam, the Galleon Group’s co-founder, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, would quietly enter the courtroom and take a seat in the last row of the gallery.
From that unassuming vantage point, Mr. Bharara watched his colleagues try to persuade a jury to convict the former hedge fund titan of securities fraud and conspiracy.
The consistent presence of Mr. Bharara at the largest insider trading case in a generation — and the office’s resounding victory on Wednesday — signaled that the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan was back as the sheriff of Wall Street.
Over the last decade, the New York attorney general, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, the Manhattan district attorney and even the Justice Department in Washington angled for their share of financial fraud cases, an area traditionally dominated by the Southern District. For example, Eliot Spitzer grabbed headlines when he was New York attorney general by focusing on malfeasance at investment banks.
But Mr. Bharara has not-so-quietly reaffirmed his office’s leading role in pursuing corporate crime with this landmark insider trading case, which relied on aggressive prosecutorial methods and unprecedented tactics. For the first time, federal authorities used wiretaps to listen in on stock traders swapping illegal tips.
“What this case has done,” said Neil M. Barofsky, a former Southern District prosecutor who recently served as the special inspector general for the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, “goes well beyond simply putting a billionaire hedge fund manager behind bars.”
“The case will impact an entire industry,” Mr. Barofsky said. He said that Mr. Bharara “did more than just oversee and support the prosecution — he made sure that the target audience, traders on Wall Street, fully understood the extraordinary lengths that his office will go to discover these crimes, and that justice will be served.”
It has been 21 months since Mr. Bharara, 42, was appointed United States attorney by President Obama.
In that short tenure, his staff has ventured far beyond Wall Street, prosecuting some of the nation’s — and the world’s — most prominent defendants. Among them: Faisal Shahzad in the Times Square bomb plot; agents in a Russian spy ring; Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantánamo Bay detainee to be tried in the civilian system; Viktor Bout, a Russian accused of being an arms trafficker; a Somali man charged with piracy; and four men charged in a plot to bomb synagogues in the Bronx.
Not every case has gone smoothly. In Mr. Ghailani’s trial, the jury acquitted him of more than 280 counts of murder and conspiracy and convicting him of a single count of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property. Nonetheless, Mr. Ghailani received a life sentence.
Some academics and newspaper columnists have also criticized Mr. Bharara for not filing criminal charges against senior executives at the center of the financial crisis. Last week, when his office filed a civil mortgage-fraud lawsuit against Deutsche Bank, he said there was not enough evidence to justify a criminal complaint.
Mr. Bharara was an infant in 1970 when he came to the United States from India with his parents. He grew up in Eatontown, N.J., and earned degrees from Harvard and Columbia Law School.
After several years in private practice, including a stint at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in New York, Mr. Bharara became a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, handling organized crime, narcotics and securities fraud cases. In 2005, he became chief counsel to Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, leading a Congressional inquiry into the firings of United States attorneys.
Some lawyers have wondered aloud whether Mr. Bharara may have political aspirations like his predecessors, including former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who filled the post in the 1980s. As with Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Bharara is a charismatic figure who is comfortable in front of cameras, can talk tough and has a knack for the witty sound bite. At a news conference announcing Mr. Rajaratnam’s arrest, Mr. Bharara riffed off a famous line from the movie “Wall Street.”
“Greed, sometimes, is not good,” he said.
Unlike Mr. Giuliani, whose political ambitions seemed barely hidden while he led the prosecutor’s office, Mr. Bharara has told friends he has no interest in elected office.
“Everything about Preet’s record suggests that he’s a federal prosecutor for all the right reasons,” said Randy Mastro, a lawyer at Gibson Dunn and a former top deputy under Mayor Giuliani. “The best prosecutors are often those who don’t have political ambitions.”
Mr. Mastro, who overlapped for a time with Mr. Bharara at Gibson Dunn, added, “But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be drafted into running.” Ellen Davis, Mr. Bharara’s spokeswoman, said in a statement on Thursday: “Preet loves his job and has no desire to run for public office now or ever.”
Mr. Bharara has not commented publicly on the Rajaratnam verdict, other than a short statement in a news release. But in a series of speeches, he has explained his aggressive approach to corporate crime.
“When sophisticated business people begin to adopt the methods of common criminals, we have no choice but to treat them as such,” Mr. Bharara said weeks after revealing the use of wiretaps in building a case against Mr. Rajaratnam. “To use tough tactics in these circumstances is not being heavy-handed; it is being even-handed.” He has taken that approach in other areas of financial crime.
His office secured convictions in two high-profile criminal cases against bank executives accused of stealing proprietary computer code related to high-frequency trading businesses, including a case against a former programmer at Goldman Sachs. More recently, Mr. Bharara’s prosecutors charged the operators of three popular online poker sites with fraud and money laundering.
And Mr. Bharara continues to pursue insider trading cases. Over the last 18 months, his office has charged 47 individuals with insider trading crimes, 36 of whom have pleaded guilty or been convicted. At a recent news conference, he indicated there was more to come.
“I wish I could say we were just about finished, but sadly we are not.”