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Doing Justice by Preet Bharara || Financial Times

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Doing Justice by Preet Bharara*

An eloquent lesson that the law is only as good as those who lead it

 

The most surprising thing about Preet Bharara’s memoir is how little the author mentions the man who fired him. In spite of having sacked Bharara as the US attorney for the southern district of New York (SDNY as it is widely known) just a few weeks after he took office in 2017, President Donald Trump merits only a few passing references.

 

The book as a whole is notably apolitical for a hard-charging prosecutor appointed by Mr Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. Corrupt Democrats in Albany, the capital city of New York State, and Wall Street’s insider traders come off just as badly, or worse, than garden variety Republicans.

 

I opened the book expecting to see Bharara making an implicit case for the next stage in his career — a move into politics. Many of his forebears, including Rudy Giuliani, who became mayor of New York (and serves now as Mr Trump’s gleeful hatchet man) have used the job as a springboard for elective office.

 

Yet I closed it none the wiser about the direction of Bharara’s ambitions. In between, however, he has penned an eloquent, philosophical and, at times, moving memoir of what it is like to serve as America’s most high-profile legal official.

 

They call SDNY the “sovereign district” because of the power it wields. It is hard to believe Bharara would derive as much job satisfaction from being, for instance, the US attorney-general in Washington.

 

Bharara draws on examples of his successful, and occasionally botched, convictions to make larger points about the nature of America’s legal system. In nearly eight years on the job, he convicted more Wall Street figures for insider trading than any previous occupant.

 

Those who rightly complain that Mr Obama failed to jail many people for the fraud behind the 2008 financial crisis overlook the fact that Mr Bharara obtained almost 100 Wall Street convictions, albeit most unrelated to the crash. He also rolled up a hedge fund, SAC Capital, and reached legal settlements worth billions of dollars with several banks.

 

It is notoriously difficult to prove insider trading. A member of Bharara’s team found an obscure law that permitted the wire tapping of suspects, which opened the floodgates. Among his insider trading scalps was Raj Rajaratnam, the head of the Galleon Group, and Rajat Gupta, former head of McKinsey. Such was Bharara’s zeal that he appeared on a cover of Time magazine as the man “busting Wall Street”. The character, Chuck Rhoades in the drama, Billions, is based partly on Bharara.

 

That said, the memoir is peppered with the kind of aphorisms that are hard to imagine coming from Rhoades. The Wall Street cases take up relatively little space. Prosecution of 9/11 terrorists, corruption in Albany, and a case of a New York cop who allegedly planned to cannibalise women including his wife, provide saltier anecdotes. The latter researched recipes for human flesh online — “not all of which recommend fava beans and Chianti as accompaniments”, Bharara observes in a reference to Hannibal (Silence of the Lambs) Lecter.

 

Running through the book is a rebuke to falling public standards. “We swim in lies, never corrected,” Bharara writes. Many will find his tips instructive. Study your judge, for example. They are as unalike as anyone else. Some are vain; others naive; a few are corrupt. One dyspeptic judge had degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford — and an “advanced degree in Curmudgeonry”.

 

Never be afraid to ask dumb questions — be “childlike”, as opposed to “childish”, he advises. Journalists and lawyers alike should take note. “Dumb questions uncover superficial reasoning, reveal bad logic, and expose fake experts,” writes Bharara. “The world is populated, even in rarefied workplaces, with bullshit artists”.

 

His most trenchant — and relevant — point is that culture shapes all. We should not place blind faith in an abstract ideal of the law. It is only as good as the people who lead it. “Freedom comes from human beings rather than laws and institutions,” he writes. The same applies to politics. Bharara’s book deserves to be widely read beyond the legal world.

 

 

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