ALBANY — The federal prosecutor who made it his mission to clean up corruption at New York’s statehouse is looking for a new career.
Preet Bharara toppled two former leaders of the state Legislature as the hard-charging U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. He has yet to signal his intentions for his next job. But his status as a newly minted free agent is leading to speculation that he could become a candidate for statewide office.
Bharara was fired by President Donald Trump on March 11, one of 46 federal prosecutors who had been appointed by former President Barack Obama to be let go that day.
But as testimony to his high profile, the 48-year-old former chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, was the only one of those fired lawyers to have his ouster covered by the Hollywood trade publication Variety. Its story noted that Bharara was in part the inspiration for a character in the Showtime drama, “Billions,” a federal prosecutor named Rhoades, played by actor Paul Giamatti.
Though his territory as a prosecutor was Manhattan, the Bronx and six suburban counties near New York City, Bharara did not limit his reach to that area, and was aggressive in tackling corruption upstate.
“He impacted Albany in a way I have not seen in the 30 years I have been here,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit that advocates for clean and transparent government. “His office held Albany accountable more than anyone else has.”
Those whose careers were ended by investigations led by Bharara include former state Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver, both of whom had been among Albany’s most powerful politicians. Both were convicted in late 2015 in unrelated trials for their roles in bribery schemes. Both convictions are under appeal.
Since taking charge of the Southern District in New York, Bharara notched cases against a rogues’ gallery of disgraced lawmakers, along the way calling the state Capitol a “cauldron of corruption.”
One of the most recent investigations -- still unfinished -- initiated under Bharara’s watch led to the indictment of a former confidant of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Joseph Percoco, and several upstate construction company executives for alleged bribery and bid-rigging in connection with economic development projects getting state funding.
Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University, said that though Bharara has not declared himself to be interested in running for public office, he could be a viable candidate for governor.
Cuomo has signaled that he plans to seek a third term in 2018. He and Bharara are Democrats.
“The irony is that Donald Trump, by removing Preet Bharara from office, has helped Cuomo, his most likely rival (for the presidency) in 2020, because Bharara is the guy who has drawn the most blood on Cuomo,” Reeher said.
Bharara, a resident of Westchester County, has been criticized by some for using his office to overreach and using the press to turn public opinion against the targets of his probes.
He has manifested an at-times glib sense of humor, tweeting after he was fired by Trump: “By the way, now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like.”
That quip was partly at Cuomo’s expense, as it referred to the sudden dismantling by Cuomo of a corruption-fighting commission that had reportedly been examining alleged misdeeds by lawmakers and other state officials.
Should Bharara opt to pivot into electoral politics, he’d be in position to set himself up as a candidate taking on the establishment, said George Arzt, a New York City political consultant whose clients have included the Cuomo re-election campaign in 2014.
“Trump did very well running against the establishment; and Preet could run against the establishment as well,” Arzt said.
He noted that as a candidate, should he take that step, Bharara would be following in the footsteps of the late Gov. Thomas Dewey and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, both of whom parlayed careers as criminal prosecutors into elective office.
As a native of India who supports immigration and has taken on targets involved in terrorism and politics, Bharara, he added, “has a compelling story.”
“I would think there would be plenty of pressure on him to look at a run for governor as a Democrat,” Arzt said.
But should he emerge in the mix of candidates, Arzt noted, Bharara would likely have to defend himself from critics who paint him as “an overly aggressive prosecutor.”
Last year, before a Bruce Springsteen concert was staged in Albany, Bharara addressed the possibility that he could one day be a candidate, but in joking style at a time when he was fully occupied as a federal prosecutor.
“Let me put it this way: Given Bruce Springsteen is in town, I was not ‘Born to Run,’” Bharara said, quoting the title of one of the Boss’ hits.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org