Whether he's prosecuting terrorism, financial fraud or any other prominent case, federal prosecutor Preet Bharara has taken a career path he could only dream about years ago. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
Receiving praise from the attorney general is good. Appearing on the cover of Time and then becoming one of the magazine's 100 most influential people is nice. But getting a shoutout from The Boss in concert?
"I found it on YouTube, and let's just say when I'm down, I play that clip, and it makes me happy," says Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Bharara has one of highest-profile legal positions in the country. Since 2009, his office has pursued a wide variety of prosecutions with international implications, against JPMorgan in the Madoff scandal, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, members of the Gambino crime family and politicians charged with corruption. However, Bharara says his office doesn't have a co called "cowboy mentality."
"The public wouldn't want people in this position with so much power and so much responsibility and so much authority to be willy-nilly without reflection and deliberation and modesty and humility and consultation with other people, making decisions about whether someone should go to jail or not," he says. "There are very few, outside of war-time, there are very few more weighty decisions that people make."
Another case that drew a lot of attention was the 2013 arrest of an Indian diplomat on charges of submitting false documents to get a work visa for her housekeeper. He's received a lot of criticism in his native India for the prosecution.
Bharara is quick to point out that the victim in the case is also from India.
"There are some people saying, because you brought this particular case, you must be anti-African-American, or this particular case, you must be anti-Chinese, or this particular case, even though you are yourself from India, you must be, in some way, self-hating, and you're anti-Indian," he says. "When you have enough of those things, enough of those complaints get made and arguments get made, you think to yourself, maybe people should realize that we're not anti-any particular group, we're just anti-crime."
Bharara's office has taken on many insider trading and financial fraud cases, but it's been criticized for not going after the leaders of banks and financial institutions in an effort to change some core wall street behaviors that brought on the crash in 2008.
"People call this office and the people in this office and my predecessors many things, but they don't call us not aggressive," Bharara says.
"We lived through financial crisis, too, and we had retirement plans, too, to the extent that there was devastation economically and within families and within people's bank accounts and in people's households from the financial crisis, all of that was visited equally, if not moreso, on the people whose job it is to hold people accountable," he says.
"Simply because a lot of people angrily suggest, without proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that certain people should go to jail because there has been some pain. There's no doubt, as I described, the pain was felt by me personally and others also. That's not enough."
Even in the most serious of settings, Bharara is not afraid to flash a sense of humor. When with Attorney General Eric Holder in the city last week, he said, "It is my honor and privilege to welcome the attorney general of the United States to the nation's capital."
Bharara says it's the product of going to school with wisecracking kids in New Jersey.
Early on, Bharara knew what he wanted to be. In seventh grade, he read "Inherit The Wind," a play about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and the great attorney Clarence Darrow.
"Clarence Darrow thought, as I understand it, thought about the practice of law not just as the reading of statutes and the briefing of cases, but also appreciated that to be a good lawyer was to be a human being," he says.
"The law's effect is felt by flesh-and-blood people, often frail and frightened and human, who will have to rely against their will on lawyers like you," he said in his 2013 commencement speech at Columbia Law School.
His family's history also had a big impact on his youth. His father's life was upended in 1947 by the partition of India.
"His family had to give up everything to come from what was then the Pakistani side over to the Indian side, and they had to start life anew in the late 1940s from nothing," Bharara says. "So my dad is a big believer in being self-made and a big believer in education."
Bharara says there was intense pressure on him and his brother to succeed growing up.
Mishkin: Is it spoken or unspoken?
Bharara: Oh, it was very spoken. There was a lot of speaking. And if it didn't go well, then you weren't spoken to. So there was that aspect, too.
His brother, Vinnie, is a successful entrepreneur. Bharara lost some money on his brother's first internet venture in the late '90s involving sports collectibles, and then passed on the next Internet idea, selling diapers.
"I thought, 'Knock yourself out,'" he said. "By that point, I had become the U.S. attorney, so I'm thinking, 'In the family competition, I'm doing pretty well.' We're a competitive family. Fast forward a year, and he calls me up, or a year and a half, and he calls me up to just let me know, 'Hey, I just want to let you know that today, amazon.com is announcing that they're buying our diaper company for $540 million. So he ended up doing pretty well in the competition in the family."
While he was in high school, he interned for Governor Mario Cuomo. Bharara then attended Harvard and Columbia Law School.
More recently, he served as chief counsel for Sen. Charles Schumer, receiving praise from Republicans and Democrats for his work in the investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys for political reasons.
Despite all of the credit his office is given for the many indictments and prosecutions, Bharara's job requires a thick skin.
"No matter what you do, there's going to be criticism," he says. "If you bring a case often, people will say, if it's high-profile enough, people will say, 'You were too aggressive. What are you doing thinking about making that case?' Particularly if it doesn't go well. On the other hand, if you don't bring a case, and people appreciate that maybe something went amiss, well, 'What's wrong with you? You're a wimp.' So you're either a wimp or a cowboy."
Bharara is married with young children. His job requires him to be available 24/7, and time spent at work occasionally means family time missed. But because of the nature of the work, Bharara doesn't necessarily see it as a sacrifice.
Bharara: It's in the service of something that's really good and great, and I would wish upon my own kids that they think of a way to serve in the same way that some of the people in this office have been serving.
Mishkin: But first, they have to read "Inherit the Wind," or Clarence Darrow for the defense.
Bharara: There are other great books, too. And they can be other things, as long as it's a lawyer, prosecutor.
Bharara says working in the U.S. attorney's office was his dream, but his increasingly public profile has led to some discussion in the media about his future.
The present is keeping Bharara plenty busy, and there are always lessons from the past.
"My parents were pretty strong people. My dad, in particular, who came all the way from India without any money and without knowing people in this country really. So it teaches you something about strength," he says.
"His one son gets to be the U.S. attorney here and his other son becomes a successful entrepreneur, that's pretty good for a guy from the Punjab."