U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s statement was brief, but packed a punch: “Today, I was fired from my position as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.”
And so ended the tenure of a prosecutor who took on and won convictions against organized crime, Wall Street scoundrels, terrorists, and corrupt politicians. Despite a promise by then-President-elect Donald Trump to keep Bharara on, the President fired him this past Saturday anyway along with scores of other Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys across the nation.
The rationale? Probably the best case that the President can make is that he was exercising his prerogative by clearing the deck for his own appointees. How can he defend welching on his agreement? Hard to say, it could be simply that he wasn’t serious in November or it could be that Bharara’s zealous pursuit of justice was simply becoming too uncomfortable.
But for New Yorkers hoping for ethical government, the news was devastating. Bharara has been, after all, the single most significant player in cleaning up Albany in at least a generation.
And his work was far from complete: he was reportedly looking into pay-to-play schemes involving people at the highest levels of New York State and New York City governments.
But his firing also draws into stark relief the problems with government prosecutions. In Bharara, the nation has had one of the most successful prosecutors. Yet, apparently because he wasn’t part of the partisan team, he got the heave-ho. And while it is understandable why a new Administration would want its own people, independent enforcement should matter most.
It is fair to guess that New York’s political elite, Democrats and Republicans alike, both feared and hated Bharara. He followed the evidence and enforced the law without fear or favor. He played no favorites. Apparently, that standard was too high for the new Administration, and certainly won no friends in official Albany.
But the Bharara firing also highlights the weaknesses of state ethics enforcement. With Bharara walking the beat, New Yorkers could feel somewhat assured that someone was watching out for their interests. With him gone, we are left to rely on state watchdogs – entities that are too often limited by weak laws or controlled by those whom the watchdogs are supposed to be watching.
For example, one of Bharara’s investigations focused on pay-to-play schemes in which (it has been alleged) that top associates of the governor used state contracts to enrich themselves and to shake down contractors for campaign contributions to help the governor.
Those contracts were issued during the time that the governor and the legislative leaders were negotiating new laws to limit the power of the state’s Comptroller to monitor contracts. The state Comptroller is supposed to be an independent monitor of New York’s finances – that’s why he is a separately elected official.
Whether the Comptroller would have arrived at the same conclusions as the U.S. Attorney’s office is unknowable, but what is crystal clear is that the state’s leaders wanted to limit the power of the Comptroller to monitor government contracts at the same time the governor’s close associates allegedly were gaming the system for their own benefit.
Also, the state’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), is controlled by individuals who are directly appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders. And it is precisely the governor and the legislative leaders (as well as other public officials and lobbyists) who are subject to JCOPE’s scrutiny.
It is noteworthy that the first three executive directors of JCOPE have been all former employees of the governor.
If New Yorkers want to ensure that government is acting in the public’s best interests and not some partisan or personal ones, they should demand independent oversight of the state’s contracting and its ethical standards. With negotiations over the state’s $150 billion budget in full swing, ethics reform doesn’t appear to be on or even near the table among the governor and the legislative leaders.
Sadly, reform is not happening. In Albany, there is a lot of noise about improving contracting and ethics, but at the end of the day it ends up being more sound bites and posturing.
New Yorkers must demand independent oversight; the best laws in the world only work if they are enforced.
With Preet out of the picture, the pressure is taken off and that’s not what will be happening – unless New Yorkers collectively raise their voices loudly and say enough.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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