Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s conviction on Monday was a huge blow against Albany’s culture of corruption, but it was also a major personal victory for Preet Bharara, the crusading U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. From the beginning of his tenure in 2009, Bharara has vowed to make cleaning up New York politics a top priority, and after taking on two of the most powerful men in Albany — Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos — earlier this year, he has to deliver.
“The aura he wants to create is as a corruption fighter, someone who is going to root out the cancer plaguing New York State for so long. If he loses even one of these cases, people are going to wonder whether the big talk is consistent with the results,” Pace Law professor Bennett Gershman, a former state prosecutor, told the New York Daily News.
Scoring a conviction against Skelos, who is currently on trial, in addition to Silver, would solidify Bharara’s legacy, but taking on shady Albany politicians is just one feather in his cap. Bharara’s office has gone after a slew of notable targets, from international terrorists to Wall Street criminals — and the list is expected to keep growing.
For years there’s been speculation that like former U.S. attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, Bharara might transition into politics. But the bigger question right now is who he’ll go after next. Recently Bharara’s office has been looking into Governor Andrew Cuomo’s meddling in the activities of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission, and the Buffalo Billion economic-development initiative. There’s no sign that Cuomo has done anything criminal, but as New York’s Chris Smith put it, Bharara seems frustrated at “not being able to make the biggest Albany case of all.” Plus, he wants everyone from gang leaders to top politicians to know that he’s watching. Here are some of the memorable figures who learned that the hard way:
Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber
In 2010, Faisal Shahzad, who was captured at JFK Airport en route to Dubai after a failed attempt to set off a car bomb in the heart of Manhattan, pleaded guilty to multiple terrorism charges and was sentenced to life in prison.
“He decided on a Saturday evening in 2010 that he wanted to blow up as many people as possible in Times Square. We stayed up for the next 53 hours until he was in custody, and there was a lot of anxiety about that because he was on the loose,” Bharara recalled in a 2013 interview with the New York Times. “We learned afterwards that his plan was to keep blowing up people and kill as many Americans as he possibly could … If he hadn’t been caught when he was, who knows what kind of damage he would have done.”
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, adviser to Osama bin Laden
The Kuwaiti-born cleric was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 after being found guilty of serving as al-Qaeda’s main mouthpiece and recruiter, and conspiring to kill Americans. He sat with bin Laden, his father-in-law, after the September 11 attacks, and was the most senior bin Laden adviser tried in civilian court in the U.S.“He was more than just Osama bin Laden’s propaganda minister,” Bharara said after his conviction. “Within hours after the devastating 9/11 attacks, Abu Ghayth was using his position in al Qaeda’s homicidal hierarchy to persuade others to pledge themselves to al Qaeda in the cause of murdering more Americans.”
Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer
Bharara’s office extradited and prosecuted the notorious Russian arms trafficker known as the “merchant of death.” In 2012 he was sentenced to 25 years in jail for conspiring to kill Americans and provide support to a terrorist organization after agreeing to sell arms to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informants posing as members of a a Colombian rebel group.
Raj Rajaratnam, billionaire hedge-fund manager
In his first two years on the job, Bharara charged 46 people with insider trading and secured 30 guilty pleas, which earned him a Time magazine cover with the headline “This Man Is Busting Wall Street.” His biggest victory was the conviction of Raj Rajaratnam, the billionaire co-founder of the Galleon Group, a massive hedge fund, on 14 counts of securities fraud and conspiracy. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, the longest sentence ever for insider trading. Rajat Gupta, the former Goldman Sachs director convicted of passing confidential information to Rajaratnam, was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
J.P. Morgan and Bernie Madoff’s associates
In 2014, Bharara reached an agreement with JPMorgan Chase requiring the bank to pay $2.6 billion to resolve allegations that it turned a blind eye to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The money, which set a record for penalties stemming from violations of the 1970 Bank Secrecy Act, went to Madoff’s victims. Bharara’s office also successfully prosecuted several of Madoff’s associates, including his brother Peter Madoff, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for his role in the investment fraud.
Toyota and General Motors
Last year, Toyota agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine to settle criminal charges for concealing acceleration problems linked to at least five deaths. “In its zeal to stanch bad publicity in 2009 and 2010, Toyota misled regulators, misled customers, and even misstated the facts to Congress,” Bharara said while announcing the settlement, which is the largest ever against an auto company.
In September, General Motors agreed to pay a $900 million fine for hiding an ignition-switch defect linked to at least 174 deaths. Critics complained that the figure is only a fraction of the company’s annual revenue, and no individuals will be held responsible. Bharara defended the deal, saying it was a challenging case for prosecutors. “I met personally with families who lost loved ones in tragic accidents involving the switch and, I’ll tell you, those were among the most searing moments I’ve ever spent in my six-plus years as United States attorney,” he said.
Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos
Seventeen Albany politicians have been indicted or convicted since Bharara took office. He used tactics usually employed against terrorists and mobsters, such as stings, wiretaps, and undercover agents, to take down various lawmakers, including State Senator Malcolm Smith, former State Senator Hiram Monserrate, and former Deputy Senate Majority Leader Tom Libous.
Of course, his two biggest “gets” were Silver and Skelos, who started off 2015 as two-thirds of the “three men in a room” who decide what gets done in Albany (Cuomo is the third). Both resigned their leadership positions following their arrests, and with his conviction on federal corruption charges — including bribery, extortion, and money laundering — Assemblyman Silver is facing 130 years in prison. Skelos and his son Adam have been accused of conspiracy, extortion, wire fraud, and bribery, and their trial should go to a jury in the next few weeks.
“These charges in our view go to the very core of what ails Albany: lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of principle — joined with overabundance of greed, cronyism, and self-dealing. But we will keep at it,” Bharara said when announcing the charges against Silver in January. “As our unfinished fight against public corruption continues, you should stay tuned.”