A Graceless End to Preet Bharara’s Successful Tenure

For much of Preet Bharara’s first year as an assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of New York, your humble correspondent was his supervisor. I have always thought highly of him, personally and professionally, so I’m sorry to see him end a memorable tenure leading our former office with a politicized prima donna schtick.

One of the great things about law enforcement done right is that I didn’t know Preet’s politics back then. The SDNY is headquartered in Manhattan and its prosecutors and alumni tend to come from the nation’s top law schools (Bharara went to Harvard, then Columbia Law). Naturally, they tend to lean left. But political predisposition is irrelevant to a job that is principally about figuring out facts and applying legal principles to them.

It wasn’t until he emerged, in the mid-oughts, as Sen. Chuck Schumer’s chief counsel that I realized Preet was a partisan Democrat. I wasn’t surprised, though, to hear that he was well-liked by peers and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, particularly on the Judiciary Committee. His smarts and competence combine nicely with a winning temperament. I was delighted when President Obama nominated him to return to the SDNY as the boss, and fully expected that he would do a bang-up job, as he did.

Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten the defining attribute of the great institution that is the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York: The work is bigger than any one person doing it. It is an easy mistake to make: When big cases are successful, the prosecutor in charge gets the plaudits; you must constantly remind yourself that you are being celebrated for the collective effort of scores of people; their dedication is responsible for the glow in which you bask.

In just the last generation, before Preet’s turn came, the SDNY was run by Rudy Giuliani, Mary Jo White, Jim Comey, and Mike Garcia among a handful of other stellar prosecutors who made their distinct mark before taking other lofty posts in public life. In each case, when the boss moved on, a new boss moved in and the work of the office went on seamlessly.

Contrary to the media consternation -- which is more about loathing of the incoming president than loving of the outgoing U.S. attorney -- the work will go on without Preet, too. All of it, including the political corruption cases. The “Sovereign District” has always prided itself on independence from Main Justice; the party in power in Washington made little or no difference to the day-to-day in Manhattan.

What won Bharara his greatest plaudits was his apparent willingness to follow corruption evidence wherever it led, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were implicated or exonerated. That’s why I thought the low point of his tenure was the felony prosecution of Dinesh D’Souza over a minor campaign-finance infraction that should have been settled with a modest administrative fine. D’Souza is a high-profile Obama critic; it is difficult to fathom any other explanation for the SDNY’s scorched-earth approach to such a trifle.