U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara on Insider Trading, Cybercrime, and More
Could you describe a typical day in your job?
It’s so varied. I joked once that a typical day could be like when, some months ago, in the morning we were finalizing a complaint against Bank of America. In the afternoon, assistants in this office were preparing to appear at the sentencing of Rajat Gupta. And in the evening we were putting the final touches on the complaint charging a police officer with conspiracy to kidnap, rape, and cannibalize.
So as far as your movements. You wake up …?
My movements are a state secret, and I’m not allowed to tell you that. Other than to say I eat the same thing every day: raw meat.
Raw meat, OK.
And when raw meat is unavailable, I eat a granola bar every morning and a Diet Coke.
Any particular type of granola bar?
I eat a chocolate chip Atkins bar every morning. My children think it’s insane, because I don’t vary it. That can get me through the whole day almost.
You have said previously that your father told you stories about witnessing corruption in India when he was growing up. What effect did that have on you?
I don’t know if it had a huge effect on me. It explained a little bit about my father and what his principles were. And that, combined with other things that he taught my brother and me, helped to make me the kind of person I am, the kind of lawyer I am.
You’re of South Asian heritage. Many people who have been prosecuted by your office share the same heritage. Have you ever felt conscious of that?
People spend a little too much time, surprisingly to me, focusing on accidents of ethnic overlap. As a friend of mine once said, you know where that happens every day? Where you have an Indian prosecutor and an Indian defendant? India. And nobody thinks it’s bizarre. Sometimes I wish people would just get over it.
Someone told me that you’re not afraid to pursue or encourage people to pursue risky cases. Is that true?
You want to pursue cases that are appropriate to bring, righteous to bring, and comport with what justice requires. And I don’t think the public wants prosecutors to shy away from tough cases. If over the course of time you’re not taking any risks, then you’re not ultimately achieving justice.
What did you learn from working on organized crime cases that you were able to apply to securities fraud?
When you have crimes that are difficult to prove, you should be thinking about using the most aggressive techniques, because that’s what the public deserves and that’s why they pay our salary.
When is it worth pursuing a RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] charge against a financial firm?
When the facts and evidence support it.
Is it a last resort?
Charges get brought when they’re appropriate to bring. Sometimes we bring a wire-fraud case, sometimes we bring a securities-fraud case, sometimes we bring a mail-fraud case, sometimes we bring a RICO case. We don’t view any particular statute that we employ as a last resort. I sound like a broken record, but in all things we just try to do what is appropriate and right and consistent with the facts and the law.
The insider-trading cases have gotten a lot of attention. A disproportionate amount of attention, perhaps?
I don’t know why the insider-trading cases get the amount of attention that they get. We’re not obsessed with them. At any given time in this office, which has about 250 assistant U.S. attorneys, no more than a handful of people are working on insider-trading cases. I have done just as many press conferences, I believe, with respect to gang takedowns, which are important because we are making communities safer. And the level of attention those cases get is much less than the attention to the insider-trading cases. That’s a function of the fact that there are multiple 24-hour financial news channels and there’s no 24-hour gang channel, so I understand that. But that work is probably more important than insider-trading cases.
What do you think of the argument that you haven’t brought enough cases related to the financial crisis?
I think it’s totally appropriate for people to ask questions about why certain cases are brought and other cases are not. It’s America, and before I am a prosecutor I am also an American. My family and I also suffered because of the downturn. Everyone’s retirement accounts went down and lots of people lost money. And that’s true of average people; it’s also true of the people in this office. We brought some cases in that respect, and to the extent that there are not more of those cases yet, it’s a function of the facts and not a function of will or commitment or courage.
You feel that if there were cases in that arena to be made, your office would have made them?
Well, we’re not responsible for every case in the country.
What’s it like to be the subject of so much attention? What is it like when someone recognizes you?
If they’re not mad at me, then it’s very nice.
Has anyone yelled at you on the street?
No one has yelled at me. … I think they must have muttered behind my back.
Do you feel anxious when you’re out?
No, I eat raw meat for dinner.
You’re very funny. Where does that come from?
My mom’s pretty funny, and I went to a school where people liked to joke around.
I can tell you’re reining it in.
Because you have a tape recorder on. I don’t want to get in trouble.
Who’s going to get in trouble for being funny?
I grew up in Jersey, and if someone insults you, you’ve gotta be able to hit back. And since I weighed like nine pounds growing up, the only thing I had was a comeback, not a punch.
Speaking of Jersey, you’re on record as liking Bruce Springsteen. Do you like Bruce Springsteen more than Chris Christie?
I like Chris Christie fine, but I certainly like Bruce Springsteen more than I like Chris Christie.
Who likes Springsteen more, you or Chris Christie?
I don’t know. Actually, the governor and I have talked about that. I have not gone to as many concerts as Chris Christie. But I like Springsteen a lot. I try to go to concerts when I can.
I lost count. I’ve been to maybe 30 or 40.
What’s the first thing you did when you began this job?
We consolidated a lot of things, like the cyberwork and tax work and other kinds of frauds, added resources. We began talking about how we might do additional affirmative civil fraud cases and establish a civil fraud unit, which has now brought suit against a number of the most powerful financial institutions in the world with respect to their mortgage lending practices.
Regarding cyberterrorism, is there any way to keep up with crimes occurring in that arena?
We try. That’s among the most sophisticated type of threat that we face, whether you’re talking about hackers who are doing it for money or you’re talking about state actors who are doing it for purposes of espionage or attacking our infrastructure. But the FBI and the Secret Service have been spending a lot of time catching up.
What kinds of things should companies do?
Companies should spend time focusing on a plan. You figure out how to build a better firewall and how you’re going to cooperate with law enforcement. You need to do that in advance. And shockingly, not enough businesses have thought about it.
You’ve said your office has the power to destroy reputations and businesses, and it’s important for prosecutors to take a lot of care in exercising that. Do you feel that you’ve succeeded?
I hope that’s the case. Every prosecutor has enormous power over people’s lives, and failure to use your discretion properly can easily cause a miscarriage of justice. With respect to white-collar prosecutions, it can be the case that even launching an investigation can be the equivalent of rolling a grenade across the threshold of a business. At the same time, we have a responsibility to investigate. Which is why I say when I speak to business groups that if your business is so fragile that the mere issuance of a subpoena or a court-approved search is going to cause you to fold, then you better be 10 times more careful.