Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, greets attendees after speaking at a forum in New York, N.Y., on Sept. 30, 2014.
Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Preet Bharara: The most powerful Democrat in NY not named Cuomo?

Updated

With the stunning arrest of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for allegedly pocketing $4 million from bribery and kickback schemes, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, may have eclipsed Gov. Andrew Cuomo as one of the state’s most important Democrats.

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The move showed that the 46-year-old Bharara, who was nominated to the post by President Obama in 2009 – isn’t  afraid to go after the state’s most powerful political figures, even if it spells trouble for Cuomo and his national political ambitions. During a press conference announcing the charges against Silver, Bharara issued a foreboding warning that could make some lawmakers quiver in their boots – suggesting more was to come. “Our unfinished fight against public corruption continues. You should stay tuned,” he said. 

Indeed, the tough-as-nails, Indian-born attorney, who previously served as chief counsel to New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, has made a name for himself for going after state corruption, gang violence, international terrorists, and those involved in insider trading. He was even featured on the cover of Time magazine in 2012 with the headline “This man is busting Wall Street.”

Bharara’s name was floated as a possibility to replace Attorney General Eric Holder before Loretta Lynch, another New York jurist, was nominated. And many see his political future as very bright.

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“He has done a very good job from the beginning to root out these corruption activities when no one else has been able to identify and let alone succeed,” said Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, a New York government watchdog organization. “His stock with the public has increased dramatically, drawing much needed attention to how Albany operates and the corruption that many officials are involved in.”

“I think it would probably cement his political future if he was able to convict Silver,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University.

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A Silver conviction could have implications for Cuomo, 55, who was just sworn in for a second term and is mentioned as a possible presidential contender in the future. Bharara is currently investigating Cuomo, who ran for governor with a “cleaning up Albany” platform – for putting the kibosh early on his own anti-corruption Moreland Commission. The U.S. attorney said Thursday that files from that commission led to Silver’s arrest, although it’s worth pointing out that the federal investigation into Silver’s activities took place before Cuomo created the commission.

A New York Times report from last year described how Cuomo and aides tampered with the commission’s work, and critics say in light of Silver’s arrest, Cuomo has some explaining to do. “Nationally, this reflects on Cuomo, who ran on an anti-corruption platform and is now head of his party with serious corruption charges on his leaders,” said Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor who unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo in the Democratic primary last year.

Cuomo’s office referred questions about the Silver arrest to the governor’s interview with the editorial board at the New York Daily News in which he said the arrest is a “bad reflection” on government. He stopped short of calling Silver – an ally who Cuomo has relied on to help pass legislation – to resign, saying it was up to Democrats in the Assembly. He also said the arrest vindicated the work done by the commission he created.

Silver’s arrest will have a significant impact on lawmakers’ ability to do legislative business. “Cuomo’s going to need a lot of support. He was dependent on Silver to get many things done and now he’s working in a changed environment, which could be more changed if Silver ends up resigning. Even if Silver remains in his post, he’ll be occupied with charges that could put him in jails for 100 years. At the very least he’s going to preoccupied with other things. It’s a huge, huge problem for the governor,” said Zaino.

“It’s a huge, huge problem for the governor.”
Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College
Bharara has cast a wide net besides going after New York’s political elite. He has secured convictions for insider trading in more than 80 cases; has gone after post-9/11 terrorists like former al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith and Times Square bomber Faisal Shazad; and charged Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade for visa fraud, even as it created tensions between the U.S. and India.

Bhahara’s high profile work as a federal prosecutor creates a clear path to run for office one day, as it did for Rudy Giuliani, who held the same position before running for New York City mayor in 1993. While the progressive Occupy crowd has loudly complained for years about the lack of federal action against the titans of finance who played an integral role in the financial crisis, Bharara has gone after them quite aggressively, racking up numerous indictments. Should Bharara run for office, it seems like a good bet that Wall Street – and its money – won’t fall into line behind him.

He insisted to The New York Times last year that a political future wasn’t on the horizon – “now or ever.”

Bharara’s office told msnbc, “He stands by those comments and would have nothing to add.”

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Preet Bharara: The most powerful Democrat in NY not named Cuomo?

Updated