Preet Bharara's successors should strive for his ethics legacy

A man of his word, Preet Bharara ran afoul of a President who is a shameless, inveterate fabulist. In November, shortly after the election, Bharara met with then President-elect Donald Trump and his senior adviser, Jeff Sessions, who is now Attorney General.

After the sitdown, Bharara told reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower that Trump and Sessions had given assurances he could remain U.S. attorney of the Southern District.

Weeks later, to the surprise of absolutely no one, it turns out Trump’s word, like the signage on his buildings, was made of cheap, bendable brass rather than valuable gold. In commerce, the terms of a Trump deal always remain subject to revision; in politics too, it seems a Trump handshake is more feint than firm promise.

That’s a shame, because Preet Bharara’s brief, devastatingly effective tenure stands as a goal, guide and shining example for other public servants. He monitored the powerful with a wary eye — and, when necessary, pursued wrongdoers with great skill, energy and integrity.

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It turns out Trump’s word, like the signage on his buildings, was made of cheap, bendable brass rather than valuable gold.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Most importantly, he constantly reminded all of us in the public to join his crusades, by demanding better behavior from the titans of Wall Street, City Hall and Albany, and supporting reforms to help ensure that crooks get caught.

Bharara’s insistence that New York reach for a higher ethical level rang out in the statement he released in May, shortly after the sentencing of former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. “The nearly simultaneous convictions of (former Assembly Speaker) Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, whose corruption crimes were laid bare during fair and public trials, have no precedent. And while Silver and Skelos deserve their prison sentences, the people of New York deserve better.”

Amen to that. The Bharara era, for those of us who lived through it, will long stand as an example of the central need of our democracy to police what goes on in the nation’s financial boardrooms and political back rooms.

JAN. 10, 2017 FILE PHOTO

Attorney General Jeff Sessions also met with Bharara at Trump Tower when Trump asked him to stay on as U.S. attorney.

(Alex Brandon/AP)

Thanks to Bharara, scores of inside-traders, boiler-room fraudsters and other conmen were hounded out of the markets, where they’d fleeced stockholders and pension funds. He also secured long prison sentences for violent would-be terrorists, and used the power of his office to hammer city officials on the violence and mismanagement of Rikers Island.

There’s no reason to think Bharara’s remaining high-profile public integrity cases will vanish. Indictments have already been handed up in the prosecution of former top aides and allies of Gov. Cuomo, and an unrelated inquiry into Mayor de Blasio’s fund-raising seems to be mostly concluded.

Those of us who understand New York’s need for ethics enforcement will miss Bharara. But he would be the first to remind everyone: Democracy only works when all of us — voters, media, candidates and political parties — take up the cause of reform and loudly, constantly insist that our leaders serve the public good rather than private greed.

That’s the best way to make sure we grow and attract many more Preet Bhararas to public service, where their talents remain in high demand.

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