The following excerpts are from a chapter titled Bollywood that appears in the book, Doing Justice — A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment and the Rule of Law by Preet Bharara, former US Attorney. Under Bharara’s watch, Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was strip-searched after her arrest on charges of underpaying her nanny. The case strained India-US relations and became an “international incident. Bollywood
When your chosen profession requires making public accusations for a living, you must brace for the fallout. One consequence of all that accusing is angry blowback from the accused and their supporters. Depending on the size of their bullhorn and the aggressiveness of their counsel, they might strike back hard at the prosecutors and agencies responsible. Some of this is to be expected; zealous advocacy is commonplace. But, as we will see, there comes a time to wonder—especially if the target is powerful—whether the pushback has gone from zealous self-defense to interference.
A typical, if upsetting, tactic is to question the prosecutors’ motives, to allege bias and attack their good faith, because if you can discredit the prosecutor, maybe you can cast doubt on the case. Do the words “witch hunt” sound familiar? In the Nixon/Watergate days, these were dubbed “non-denial denials.” They never professed innocence; they just savaged the accusers. Sometimes, distastefully, attacks take on an ethnic or racial tone. At various points over my tenure, depending on who was being prosecuted, SDNY was accused of being anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-Swiss, anti-Chinese, anti-Russian, anti-Italian, and so forth. Also, oddly, anti-Indian.
On other occasions, we were accused of being anti–Wall Street, anti-Democrat, anti-Republican, anti-politician, and even anti-poker. Over time, after we had prosecuted a rainbow coalition of defendants and organizations, you would think it would have sunk in that we were just anticrime.
The best way to inoculate yourself from ugly disparagements is to keep your head down and let the frivolous criticism roll off your back. But even when criticism is colossally stupid, it can still sting. Criticism is hard to take, especially false claims of bias. I thought I had a thick skin before I became U.S. Attorney, but I was not especially self-aware in this regard. Aristotle once said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” Wise words, but Aristotle didn’t live in the age of social media.
The key is to learn which criticism to take to heart to make yourself better and which criticism to laugh off; which criticism is well placed and which is foolish. The point is not to be dismissive about criticism but to be discerning about it.
Accused parties often grasp at straws in lashing out. Nowhere did I feel that more than when, from time to time, our office prosecuted people who, like me, were of Indian origin. Screams of “witch hunt” in that context were a bit more awkward and hurtful because the argument had to be that not only was I making decisions based on ethnicity but I also was bending over backward to direct agents and prosecutors to investigate people of my own ethnic background. I am not overstating this. I suppose because of the absence of any other Indian American U.S. Attorney at the time and the relative dearth of Indian American defendants, in the minds of some it was a spectacle when my office charged someone from South Asia.
In 2009, just a few days after we arrested the billionaire hedge fund CEO Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading (along with a number of white people, I might add),
The Wall Street Journal ran an odd story. This was the first sentence: “It seems like a courtroom drama made for Bollywood: The Sri Lankan hedge-fund kingpin being prosecuted by a fellow immigrant, the Indian-born U.S. attorney for Manhattan.” That would be me.
Galleon hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam
Now imagine if a major news outlet had run a story like that a year earlier, except about a different blockbuster case: “It seems like a made-for-Broadway drama about the biggest Ponzi schemer in history: Bernard Madoff, who is Jewish, being prosecuted by a fellow Jew, U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin. It’s like something out of Fiddler on the Roof.”
Just imagine the outcry. How long would the writer of that article have remained employed?
I am a bit taken aback at how much was made of these coincidences. My goodness, there’s a South Asian defendant, and there’s a South Asian prosecutor! Holy cow! You know where this happens every day? India.
By happenstance, a small subset of the insider-trading defendants we charged and convicted were of South Asian origin. Never mind that the original investigation and wiretapping of Raj Rajaratnam and his cohorts were initiated by Michael Garcia, my Latino predecessor; never mind that there was overwhelming proof of their guilt; never mind that there was disproportionate membership in hedge funds of highly educated Indian professionals. A growing chorus developed in some of the ethnic press about my self-hating penchant for prosecuting Indian Americans. They included, apart from Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta, Anil Kumar, Samir Barai, Mathew Martoma.
I was asked about the “controversy” at functions. It irritated me every time. There came a point where career prosecutors would walk into my office and tell me the next round of potential defendants based on confidential informants, wiretaps, or other investigative techniques, and I would breathe a loud and comic sigh of relief if there was not an Indian name. Once, on the eve of announcing a round of insider-trading arrests, an AUSA turned to me abruptly and said, “By the way, Preet, you know that one of the defendants is Indian American.” I was surprised because—again although it didn’t matter and we were racially and ethnically blind on these things—I thought I would have spotted an Indian-origin name in the caption. I said, “Who?” The AUSA said, “Sam Barai.” I said, “Sam’s not an Indian name.” The AUSA added, “It’s not, but that’s the name he goes by.”
I would try to joke about it. At one point, some reporter got juiced up enough on the issue that folks in the office actually tallied up the number of South Asian insider-trading Defendants over time. It was a small fraction of our total, though I suppose disproportionate to the general population. When presented with this absurd thesis, I would try to defuse it with a joke. On one occasion, I said, “Just FYI, everyone, I do not wake up every morning, rise from my bed, fling open the windows, shake my fist at the sky, and say, ‘Bring me the head of an Indian!’ ” At least most days I didn’t do that.
On another occasion, I was asked to introduce a speaker at the annual banquet hosted by the newspaper India Abroad at the Pierre hotel in Manhattan. The event was, as always, full of high-profile Indian Americans, including people from the finance world. During the cocktail hour, I endured someone asking with a straight face why my office prosecutes so many South Asians. Later, as I rose to speak and looked around the room, I thought to myself, how can I poke fun at this nonsense in front of this large crowd?So, against my better judgment, I went to the podium and began like this: “It’s great to be here this evening. I’m Preet Bharara and I’m the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. It occurs to me as I look out at all of you and see so many prominent Indian Americans captive in this room, I have something important to say to all of you.” I paused and then said slowly, “You have the right to remain silent.” Laughter. I continued, “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” More laughter. “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney—though that seems unlikely in this crowd—one will be provided for you.”
By the time I was done administering the Miranda warning, there was a good amount of laughter in the audience.
Some individuals seemed to make it their personal mission to perpetuate this insidious narrative. Dinesh D’Souza, an author and commentator known for his extremist, insulting, and evidence-free commentary, pled guilty to charges my office brought against him in 2014 for a campaign finance violation. He knowingly reimbursed straw donors to fill the campaign coffers of a candidate for senate. Despite admitting to his wrongdoing (and his lawyer concluding on the record that he had “no defense” for his client), D’Souza continued to frame his prosecution as an act driven by my own perverse and personal desire to prosecute Indians and Indian Americans.
D’Souza didn’t just call me a “Holder henchman” or a tool in the Obama administration; he also insulted my profession, my family, my appearance, and (ironically) employed Indian stereotypes along the way: “Since Preet Bharara doesn’t have a strong Indian accent he may be employable as one of those tech guys who helps you fix your computer,” he tweeted.
He gloated when I was fired and framed me as someone with a personal vendetta toward my own people. Even after being pardoned in 2018 by President Trump, D’Souza continued to maintain the self-hating Indian theory. The self-described “scholar” tweeted, “KARMA IS A BITCH DEPT: @PreetBharara wanted to destroy a fellow Indian American to advance his career. Then he got fired & I got pardoned.” Classy fellow.
But the bubble of ethnic criticism didn’t end with certain Wall Street prosecutions or the hallucinations of an ethnic propagandist. There was once a more serious and sustained crisis. Several years into my tenure, in 2013, the State Department arrested a mid-level female Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, for visa fraud in connection with lies about what she would pay her domestic worker. She had agreed under penalty of perjury and other legal sanctions to pay her Indian domestic worker $9.75 per hour. The evidence showed that Khobragade paid Sangeeta Richard less than $1.00 an hour and violated a multitude of other fair labor practices in the United States. SDNY agreed to prosecute the case, at the State Department’s explicit request.
It was not the crime of the century but a serious offense nonetheless and a burgeoning problem among the diplomatic corps in the United States. That’s why the State Department opened the case; that’s why the State Department investigated it; that’s why the career agents in the State Department asked career prosecutors in my office to approve criminal charges.
Khobragade was afforded a number of courtesies during the course of her arrest, because of her diplomatic status, but she was strip-searched per regular procedure by the U.S. Marshals Service in the SDNY. That could have and should have been avoided, given that no one would have sought pretrial detention.
The arrest caused an international incident. It was an election year in India, and the ruling Congress Party was in danger of an electoral bloodbath loss to the Indian nationalist BJP. The BJP, the party of the future prime minister Narendra Modi, shrewdly seized upon this supposed Western insult to Indian sovereignty and caused a crisis for the Congress Party. Khobragade’s father, who had his own political ambitions in India, announced a hunger strike, though there is no evidence that he ever sacrificed a single calorie after making his dramatic announcement. But the drama was joined. The then secretary of state, John Kerry, was pressured to make the case go away. The Indians threatened retaliation against our embassy in New Delhi and suggested taking privileges away from American diplomats. At one point, as the Indian government raged, our largest democratic ally in the world—in its most hostile action—removed security barriers from the outside of the U.S. embassy.
I am proud of the case and how we upheld the rule of law. I defended our work, loudly. Because I was the U.S. Attorney and I happened to be Indian-born, an avalanche of vitriol and bile came my way. Never mind that the case was initiated and investigated by career law enforcement officials, and I personally became aware of it only the day before the arrest. The Indian government and press decided that the case was brought by me—an Indian American—for all manner of nefarious reasons.
Talk show hosts in India took to calling me a self-loathing Indian who made it a point to go after people from the country of his birth. My colleagues and I found all of it a bit odd, because the alleged victim in the case was also Indian. An Indian official asked on television, “Who the hell is Preet Bharara?” I was identified on another program as the most hated man in that country.
The criticism grew more and more intense, which might not have bothered me so much had my parents not been reading every word of it. It upset them greatly. Then came the evening when my daughter overheard a conversation in the living room. She asked me, “Daddy, what is an Uncle Tom?” Because that’s what I was being called by journalists in South Asia. That was not pleasant.
As the accusations grew more and more absurd, they became downright comical. Indian critics were angry because even though I hailed from India, I appeared to be going out of my way to act “American” and serve the interests of America. The thing is, I am American and the words “United States” were actually in my title.
Finally, I saw a peculiar line of attack in the foreign press, which was this: in a brazen betrayal of my roots, I had undertaken this case for only one reason—to serve my “white masters.” My white masters. These were, presumably, Eric Holder and Barack Obama.
Why am I rehashing all this? Because attacks on prosecutors and investigators by their targets come with the territory. It’s not quite Newtonian; for each accusation, there is not an equal and opposite accusation. But the attacks can be sharp and unfair. You have to deal with them. And you are comforted knowing that it will all be resolved, before too long, in a court of law. In some places and in some circumstances, the targets may be powerful enough to do more than merely muddy the waters or hurl invective. This is when the appropriate bleeds into outright interference and worse.
What happens when criminal justice knocks on the door of people close to the president of a country? What powers does the nation’s commander in chief bring to bear on the pesky and intrusive disrupters who have the temerity to think themselves independent, to believe no one is above the law? What ability does the one person with a megaphone louder than any prosecutor’s have to undermine the investigation not just rhetorically but actually?
Consider one of the more bizarre international incidents caused by a straightforward criminal case we brought:
In March 2016, a man named Reza Zarrab traveled with his family from Turkey to Disney World for a vacation. Zarrab was an Iranian gold trader who was a dual citizen of Iran and Turkey. He was well connected and close to President Erdogan and other high-ranking politicians and businessmen in Turkey, including Zafer Caglayan, the Turkish economy minister, and Suleyman Aslan, the former general manager of Halkbank, one of the largest Turkish state-owned banks.
Unbeknownst to Zarrab, he had been indicted under seal by an SDNY grand jury for conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran. The case had been primarily investigated by a tall, quiet, intense prosecutor named Michael Lockard. Michael brought charges against Zarrab and seven other defendants for money laundering and conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran through a massive, billion-dollar scheme in which they lied to American officials, created fake companies, fabricated documents, and bribed various Turkish government officials in order to trade gold for oil. Zarrab’s leading role had earned him significant social and fiscal capital in his country, reportedly orchestrating deals worth almost $10 billion in 2012 alone; his hubris once prompted him to promise his wife, a Turkish pop star, that he would buy her the planet Mars.
I barely knew about the case; we charge people from time to time under seal in cases so that targets are not alerted and may be so reckless as to travel to the United States at their peril. I quickly learned a lot more about Michael’s case and about Reza Zarrab. The reaction in Turkey to his arrest was mind-boggling. It was the perfect mirror image of what happened in India after the arrest of the diplomat Devyani Khobragade. Whereas in India I was vilified for a by-the- book prosecution that I knew little about, in Turkey I was immediately lionized for a similarly by-the-book prosecution that I knew equally little about. I was an overnight sensation once again.
This is not an exaggeration.
Within hours, my official Twitter account exploded: followers rose from 8,000 to almost 250,000. Almost every single one of them a jubilant Turk. My name, because it appeared on the indictment, was splashed all over Turkish television. My picture too. People from Turkey offered me praise, thanks, and kabobs. One very generous Twitter user offered me “Turkish raki, Shish Kebab, Lokuum, Turkish Carpet.” To which I replied, “Well, I do love shish kebab but I don’t think I can accept gifts just for doing my job.” For weeks and months, U.S.-based Turkish reporters followed me to events. Songs were written about me. Poems penned also. There were proclamations of love, even the hashtag #welovepreetbharara started to trend online.
Why all the celebration? Why all the acclamation? This is why: Some years earlier, in 2013, Turkey prosecutors had built a case against Reza Zarrab. The allegations were that Zarrab had led a corrupt scheme that included fraud, gold smuggling, and bribery, at the highest levels of the Turkish government, to purchase Iranian gas with gold and to evade American sanctions in order to boost the country’s trade exports. You see the overlap with our charges.
What happened to the charges in Turkey? Zarrab escaped them. He was not convicted. But he wasn’t acquitted either, because there was never any trial. Reza Zarrab had a get-out- of-jail-free card named Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of the country. The case against Zarrab implicated Erdogan’s own government, several of his cabinet members and their sons, and even Erdogan’s own son Bilal. Zarrab, the son of the environment minister, the son of the economy minister, and the son of the interior minister were part of the scores of people who were arrested and detained in December of that year.At first Erdogan was merely irate. He attacked the case publicly. He attacked the prosecutors. He attacked the police. He called the investigation a “judicial coup” and accused Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania and the face of an influential Islamic network in Turkey, of orchestrating the investigation to unseat him. Erdogan used the press to distract the Turkish people from the charges by accusing others of wrongdoing. He continued to frame himself as the target of a conspiracy. But ultimately, Erdogan did more. He didn’t just criticize the prosecutors; he didn’t just use his bully pulpit. He used his actual power.
First, he removed the prosecutors. He demoted and reassigned thousands of police officers. He reassigned judges. And he released Zarrab and the cabinet ministers’ sons from jail after seventy days behind bars. He blocked journalists from investigating government actions. He was incensed.
Then he fired police officers, including the Istanbul police chief. He disbarred and arrested prosecutors. He ordered investigations into the prosecutors who were leading the corruption investigation. He investigated and arrested police officers, judges, journalists. He shut down media outlets. He appointed new prosecutors who closed the meddlesome cases for good. He went still further. He introduced legislation that would consolidate more power over the judiciary with the justice minister, including the power to start (or stop) investigations of council members. And he expanded his own presidential power to propose members for the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which appoints and removes judges across the entire country.
In Turkey, the case against Reza Zarrab went away. Many of the people who tried to bring that case were made to go away also. And essentially half of the country was enraged. Enraged at the cronyism, enraged at the obstruction, enraged at the injustice. It stuck in the craw of tens of millions of Turks. There would never be any accountability for Reza Zarrab. Until, that is, Michael Lockard’s secret sanctions case was unsealed. To the people of Turkey who experienced the miscarriage of justice in 2013, this was karmic comeuppance. Zarrab would see his day in court. Now, just because Zarrab was suddenly facing justice in an American courtroom doesn’t mean that Erdogan sat silently by. Not by a long shot. The president of that NATO ally tried to influence our prosecution. He publicly lied about me and said I was a disciple of Fethullah Gulen. I had never even heard of Gulen until he was mentioned in the press after the indictment was unsealed. Erdogan also accused me of helping to aid the unsuccessful coup against his government in 2016. I have never set foot in Turkey, though I wish I had visited that beautiful country.
He did more than that too. As reported in the press, in the final weeks of the Obama administration Erdogan personally met with Vice President Biden. The president of a foreign nation thought he could come to Washington, attack a sitting U.S. Attorney, insert himself into an American criminal proceeding, and have his way. He had two principal agenda items. He demanded that I be fired and that Zarrab be released. He reportedly spent half of his ninety-minute conversation with Vice President Biden discussing Zarrab’s prosecution. Erdogan’s wife even brought up the case with Jill Biden. The Turkish justice minister at the time visited the then attorney general, Loretta Lynch, and demanded Zarrab’s release. Erdogan discussed the case in phone calls with President Obama too. Imagine that. I was not fired (then), and Zarrab was not set free.
Ultimately, after months in jail, Zarrab flipped, pled guilty, testified against his co-defendant, and implicated Erdogan in corruption during a trial that took place after I was fired.
What is to be learned from the Zarrab case and the attendant nuttiness? Probably many things, but here are two lessons.
One is this: Justice is delicate. Attacks on prosecutors by the prosecuted are par for the course. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the courtroom. But there are limits, dangerous if breached. When leaders of nations—whether the president of Turkey, Russia, or the United States—join the attacks, hurl the invective, demonize the justice seekers, it jeopardizes justice and threatens to destroy any remaining faith in it. And it may not be a big jump from mere rhetoric to radical abuse of power. Ever since Erdogan undid the case against his erstwhile ally in 2013, Turkey has descended into greater and greater autocracy. The press is muzzled. Freedoms are fewer. Erdogan’s paranoia and self-protection were amplified by the coup attempt, no doubt. But make no mistake that a milestone along his unfortunate path to autocracy was his decision to interfere personally in a duly launched criminal case. And nothing says that can’t also happen in America.
A second and related lesson is this: People hunger for justice. And the appearance of justice. I mention it because this unbelievable outpouring toward me in Turkey was due to this hunger. The hope is that no man is above the law; that power and privilege do not immunize you from accountability and punishment; that corruption can be fought. And that there are people brave enough to fight it. It shows the universal craving for honest government and the rule of law. Because as it turns out, the dream of honest government, where no one is above the law and the oath of office matters, is the dream of civilized people everywhere. Bringing the powerful and corrupt to justice gives people faith in all cases, big and small.
And here’s the other thing: People can make too much of prosecutors. They are law enforcers, not saviors. Now that I am at some remove from these events, I think from time to time, with a smile, this: Prosecutors are sometimes empty vessels in whom the public will pour their hopes or hatreds. I was a villain in India, a hero in Turkey, and wholly undeserving of either label.
Excerpted with permission from Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment and the Rule of Law by Preet Bharara, published by Bloomsbury India.