Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street,” spoke publicly for the first time since his surprise firing by President Trump three weeks, and also talked about the state of law enforcement in the financial sector.
Addressing a packed crowd at the Cooper Union school in New York on Thursday night, Bharara took several swipes at the Trump Administration’s performance and suggested his dismissal had been the result of incompetence or worse.
“I had thought that this was what Donald Trump was good at,” said Bharara, referring to Trump’s previous role in which he fired people on the TV show, The Apprentice.
Even though it’s customary for new Presidents to replace U.S. Attorneys, since they are political appointments, Bharara’s dismissal was controversial in light of the fact that President Trump had endorsed him in November and publicly asked him to stay on the job.
The decision appeared more controversial still after it emerged Trump made a series of phone calls to Bharara—the last of which Bharara said he refused to answer over concern about the propriety of the President phoning a sitting U.S. Attorney. This series of events led Bharara to refuse to hand in his resignation along with other U.S. Attorneys and demand he be fired instead.
“I want the record to reflect for all time there was a deliberate decision to change one’s mind and deliberately fire me, particularly given what my office’s jurisdiction is, and where my office is situated,” said Bharara, alluding to the fact that both Wall Street and Trump Tower fall within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney for Manhattan.
Bharara also made a series of jokes in reference to the President, including one about the size of the crowd who had come to hear him, and saying his remarks were not “alternative facts” or “fake news.”
He also addressed rumors about his possible future in elected office roles such as mayor or governor of New York.
“I don’t have any plans to enter politics just as I have no plans to join the circus,” he said.
Despite the remark, much of Bharara’s talk sounded like an early version of a political stump speech. He several times invoked the history of the Cooper Union venue, which helped to launch the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, and has hosted speeches by the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
He also spoke at length on traditional Democratic party themes such as inclusion of racial minorities and disabilities, and the need for a fairer criminal justice system. Bharara also decried the hyper-partisanship of Washington and spoke proudly of his friendships with conservatives.
Cleaning Up White Collar Crime
In the Cooper Union speech, Bharara reflected on his eight years prosecuting financial crime, boasting that his office had obtained $14 billion on behalf of victims through processes like forfeiture and disgorgement.
“The return on investment for taxpayers was 37 times the costs [of paying for the U.S. Attorneys Office]… That’s much better than any hedge fund I was aware of,” he said.
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Bharara also addressed the issue of insider trading, which his office pursued aggressively, and led to resentment among many in the financial community (see this Fortune feature from December for a full account).
“We had a hiccup along the way when it came to insider trading cases,” said Bharara, referring to a high-profile appeals court ruling called Newman, which made it much more difficult for prosecutors to show proof of insider trading, and led his office to halt a number of investigations.
But he added a Supreme Court ruling in December, which reversed the lower court’s finding in Newman, came as a vindication, and meant prosecutors can resume insider trading prosecutions.
Bharara expressed disappointment, however, with another Supreme Court ruling last year that overturned the graft conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. He said the unanimous decision, which narrowed the scope of what can be considered a bribe for elected officials, went against ordinary people’s notion of what a kickback is.
Finally, Bharara also spoke out in defense of the embattled Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which has been a bugbear for conservatives and is the subject of a lawsuit that claims its structure is unconstitutional.
Bharara acknowledged that the CFPB lawsuit raises legitimate questions about the separation of power but decried those who attacked its underlying purpose of protecting consumers.
“The CFPB is trying to drain a particular kind of swamp,” he said, arguing that its role is critical for protecting people without legal resources to fight for themselves.