U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara loomed large over the financial industry. The country’s most high profile prosecutor went after white collar crime with a vengeance, and his hard-charging ways even became the subject of a popular TV show.
Now, he is out.
Bharara’s sudden firing on Saturday—after he and 45 other U.S. Attorneys were asked to resign on Friday—jolted both Washington and Wall Street. And it has raised questions about what will happen to investigations now that the “Sheriff of Wall Street” is gone.
Here’s a plain English Q&A about Bharara’s dismissal and what it means.
Why is Preet Bharara such a big deal?
His stature is the result of both his office and the man himself. While there are 93 U.S. Attorneys across the country, the Office of the Southern District of New York is among the most visible and most prestigious of them all. Its previous occupants include former New York mayor and presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani as well as FBI director James Comey.
Bharara held the job since 2009, making a name for himself by prosecuting terrorists and political corruption. He also took a tough stance on Wall Street with a series of aggressive prosecutions for insider trading. The most famous of these was against the hedge fund SAC Capital, which resulted in a $1.8 billion criminal settlement but no charges against its legendary founder Steve Cohen. (It was these events that supplied the backdrop for the Showtime drama Billions.)
The moniker “Sheriff of Wall Street” is sometimes claimed by other officials, but few would argue Bharara had the best claim to it.
How come Bharara was fired?
The position of U.S. Attorney is a political appointment, so incoming presidents like to appoint their own people. In this case, President Trump on Friday dismissed the 46 remaining prosecutors from the Obama administration, including Bharara, who had not stepped down already.
Is Bharara’s firing a scandal?
That depends on your perspective. On one hand, it’s perfectly normal for a new president to replace U.S. Attorneys. So in that sense, Bharara is no different than the other 45 prosecutors who are out of a job—a point made by the conservative publication National Review.
On the other hand, Trump in late November said he had decided to keep Bharara on—a bipartisan gesture that pleased the legal community, which mostly hold Bharara in high regard. The sudden change of stance thus came as a surprise, though not on the level of a scandal.
One issue that is raising eyebrows, however, is a phone call from the president’s office to Bharara on Friday. Since the White House is not supposed to make unscheduled calls to U.S. Attorneys, Bharara declined the call. The White House has since portrayed the call as an attempt to offer good wishes, but Bharara told the New York Times he is skeptical of the explanation.
Bharara also fanned the flames of controversy on Saturday by sending two tweets. One rebuffed White House claims he had resigned, and the other invoked a New York state political investigation that was shut down suddenly:
These salvos could suggest Bharara is hinting the Trump Administration had certain reasons to sideline him. But they also may amount to a desire to raise his political profile.
What will happen to Bharara’s existing investigations?
The Office of the U.S. Attorneys has other prosecutors, so it’s not like Bharara’s cases will just blow away.
“We anticipate that the work of the office will continue for the foreseeable future with minimal disruptions,” a lawyer at the office told the Wall Street Journal.
That means existing investigations—including cases on white-collar crimes—will continue. Indeed, Bharara had hailed a Supreme Court ruling last fall, which made it easier for prosecutors to go after insider trading. But that doesn’t mean Bharara’s former office will focus solely on white-collar crime in the future. It is up to the new U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to define the priorities for law enforcement—and he could shift those priorities to narcotics, immigration, or something else.
“It is also unclear whether the office’s pursuit of white-collar crime, an enforcement area where the Southern District has been a pioneer since the 1960s, might shift. Mr. Bharara’s office secured more than 80 insider-trading convictions in recent years, exposing webs of improper tips and favors that reached across Wall Street to some of the most successful and wealthy hedge-fund managers,” the Journal notes.
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What will become of Bharara, and who will replace him?
For now, Bharara’s role will be occupied in an acting role by his long-time friend and colleague, Joon Kim. For a permanent replacement, there are rumors it will be Marc Mukasey, a white-collar defense lawyer, who works at the same law firm as Giuliani, a Trump ally.
As for Bharara, he has said in the past he is not interested in elected office. But this could change, of course, in light of the developments of the last week. Given his high profile and background, Bharara could explore a run for mayor of New York City or state-wide office in New York. Or he could elect to make money with a plum appointment in a corporate law firm. But all of this is just speculation for now.