In conversation with Dean Trevor Morrison, Preet Bharara discusses his career as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York

Earlier this year Preet Bharara joined NYU School of Law as a distinguished scholar in residence to continue working on issues he focused on as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, including criminal and social justice, honest government, national security, and corporate accountability. Several weeks into his time at the Law School, Bharara joined Dean Trevor Morrison for an open conversation about the end of his tenure as US attorney, highlights of his career, and his advice for students interested in joining the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Preet Bharara

Of his experience as US attorney, Bharara said, “It’s the most gratifying job that I think a person can have, and I don’t think I’ll have anything like that again.” When Morrison asked whether he had any favorite cases or issues that he worked on during his tenure, Bharara responded that one of the key distinctions of a good US attorney is to value all cases equally: “You are judged as a professional by making sure that you put the same level of effort, integrity, and excellence into the small cases as well as the big—as the cases that everyone is watching because they’re high profile.”

Some of the high-profile cases Bharara oversaw included numerous insider trading charges and cases growing out of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme, as well as public corruption prosecutions against politicians working at the city and state levels. Cases like these, Bharara said, are particularly significant because of the ways in which public corruption affects the population at large. “When democracy is undermined, everyone is affected by that, whether you vote or not, whether you care or not, whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent,” Bharara said.  

He was also particularly proud, he said, of his work towards reforming Rikers Island. As US attorney, Bharara joined a lawsuit, Nunez v. the City of New York, a class action suit originally filed by Rikers Island inmates. “We brought criminal cases against guards who had trampled on the constitutional rights of people who had gone to prison, and we also joined a lawsuit to make sure that reforms take place. There are still investigations going on today,” Bharara said. “In any just and fair society, in the same way the wealthy should care about the poor, the healthy should care about the sick, the prosecutor should care about the prisoner.”

Bharara also pointed to work that garnered less press that he said was nevertheless important: He was able to combat gang violence, making cities such as Newburgh and Yonkers safer. “People don’t appreciate the wide range of things that you can do at a US Attorney’s Office,” he said.

Reflecting on the breadth of work he did during the nearly eight years he served as US attorney, Bharara encouraged students interested in public service to seek out positions at the DOJ. Morrison noted that a number of students who were interested in joining the DOJ had expressed concerns that the politics of the current administration are now very far from their own. In response, Bharara stressed the independence of the US Attorney’s Offices. “The mass of what goes on in any US Attorney’s Office… is not political and doesn’t become political, no matter who the president is,” Bharara said. “My job was not to serve the president, whether that’s Barack Obama or Donald Trump or anyone else. It was to serve the public, and to serve the interests of justice.” 

Posted May 12, 2017; Updated August 21, 2017