In conversation, Preet Bharara and Ari Melber

This is the full transcript of a conversation between msnbc’s Ari Melber and top New York prosecutor Preet Bharara, the U.S attorney general for the Southern District of New York. Their wide-ranging and in-depth conversation covered everything from Wall Street reform to the hit television show “Breaking Bad.”

ARI MELBER: Preet Bharara, thank you for being here.

PREET BHARARA: Thanks for havin’ me.

MELBER: You were the top federal prosecutor in New York, a post held by Rudy Giuliani, the head of the current F.B.I. and S.E.C.  Are those big shoes for you to fill?

BHARARA: Yeah, incredibly large shoes to fill.  I mean, we have an office that has a tradition going back to 1789.  We were established at the same time as the republic itself.  And there have been a lot of great leaders of this office.  And I’m sure there’ll be many, many great leaders after I go.  So there’s– there’s a reputation to uphold and a legacy to uphold.  And I feel it every day.

MELBER: In your recent tenure, you’ve had a conviction rate in criminal cases of 96%.  That is very high.  Does that mean that you are very good at this?  Or that you’re pursuing mostly very winnable cases?

BHARARA: I like to think that the career prosecutors in the office going back, you know, decades, even centuries are very good at what they do.  So they have a high conviction rate.  I think that anybody who has 100% conviction rate may not be taking hard enough cases.  But– we take great care in the cases that we bring.  We bring cases that we think are right to bring, we think we can prove, and that are in some ways– righteous to bring.  So– a high conviction rate is something that we’re proud of.  But the reason for that is because we bring cases where we think the people who are being charged are guilty as charged.

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MELBER: Talk about big cases.  You just had one of the most powerful Democrats in New York arrested, Shelly Silver– on corruption charges and getting outside money will serving in office.  Is this a big deal corruption charge?  Or was he just padding his pockets and it’s typical, as some people say?

BHARARA: I think any time that a significant public official who’s elected by the people is arrested, it’s a big deal.  And I think– we’ve seen in New York, in case after case after case (that’s just the most recent one that you mentioned)– this office and some other offices had been bringing cases against elected officials for years now.  And I think it goes to a core problem of– honesty and integrity in the state legislature.

People forget that the state legislature, even though people don’t know the names of the people who represent them as well as they know some other names in national politics, they’re incredibly important.  They decide how much taxes you pay in many instances.  They decide how much rent you pay.  They decide what schools you can go to.  They decide a lot of things that matter to people.

And when you see somebody who’s been charged with (and we’ve convicted many, many people before this case)– and you see somebody who has basically sold his office to line his pockets and compromised his integrity and ethics with respect to how to make decisions on all those issues I mentioned that affect people’s lives, that’s a big problem.  And it’s a big problem for democracy.

MELBER: You mentioned the other cases.  Let’s read from one of them, a case (THROAT CLEARS) against Eric Stevenson, who you sent to jail for three years for bribery.  He said on one of the recordings– that investigators obtained, “Bottom line, if half the people up here in Albany were ever caught for what they’re doing, they’d probably be in” he refers to jail.  “So who are they BSing?”  Do you agree with his estimate, half the people in Albany?

BHARARA:  I hope it’s not half.  I mean, there are a lot of people who go into public service and are in for the right reasons and to do the right thing.  But it — it’s an unfortunate percentage.  The– there’s a statistic that some people cite and I cite to also, which is you are more likely — to be arrested as a state senator in New York than you are to be turned out at the polls.  And when you have a degree of corruption that is that deep and pervasive and frequent, that’s a big problem.  And so the defendant that you were referring to — seems to have had it a little bit right, at least.

MELBER: So how many — roughly, how many members of the New York Legislature would you say you’re investigating?  Are you investigating majority leader– Dean Skelos right now?

BHARARA: The — the — that’s a nice try asking for specifics, but I’m not gonna get into investigations that we may be doing at the moment and who we’re investigating.  But as I’ve said before (and– and will say again here to you)– we have a number of investigations going on.  And we’ve had them for a long time.  And it doesn’t seem like– business will be abating any time soon in the public corruption department.

MELBER: What do you say to people who agree with your work and pursuit of this corruption– but feel the real corruption is what is legal, not– tens of thousands of dollars going between legislature and– and donors for– for illegal bribes, but tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in– in legal fundraising activity?

BHARARA: Yeah, I– I symp– as a citizen, not as a prosecutor, but as a citizen who lives in New York and pays taxes in New York and has representatives in New York also, I sympathize with that view.  And I think Michael Kinsley is the one who said it first that the scandal is not so much what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal.  But as a prosecutor, what we do– and– and the prosecutors in this office do is take care to bring cases against people who have, you know, crossed over the line of what is– you know, not legal now.

I do think that people who are concerned about– you know, the– the– the culture of corruption in their statehouse, whether it’s in New York or any other state in the country– should do something about it and should pay more attention and– they should be more thoughtful about who they send to office and be more thoughtful about the kinds of reforms that they demand.

And I think some of the reforms that make sense– you know, come from our experience in doing these cases would not only cause people to be, you know, less likely to get away with the law, but also would go to some of these other things that you’re talking about as well.  There has to be a culture, you know, of honesty and respect for the people who folks are representing, as opposed to an interest in lining ones own pocket, ones own pockets– or getting as much power as possible and concentrating power in as few people as possible.  I think that’s a problem.

MELBER: In your complaint– against Silver, it says that Governor Cuomo reached a deal to disband an anti-corruption commission– quote “in exchange for the legislature to pass certain laws.”  A sort of a legislative quid pro quo.  Is that wrong?

BHARARA: W– we stand by what we wrote in the complaint.

MELBER: Is there a problem when it says in the complaint that the governor pulled back on an investigative commission in order to get something done?  Is it in the complaint because there’s something concerning about it?

BHARARA: No, there are a lot of things in the complain that are just by way of background.  And we needed to explain– in connection with the case against the assembly speaker that some of the evidence that we used to bring the case was– was brought to our attention, because we took the files of the Moreland Commission, which you’re referring to– because the Moreland Commission was disbanded within only nine months, when it was expected that it was gonna be– in power to investigate corruption and bring corruption cases for a much longer period of time.

And so that’s just there by way of background.  Now– wh– when anything happens with respect to corruption and a commission is shut down– or a commission is established for particular reasons or staffed in a particular way, I think it’s natural for people to ask questions about it.  And so there’s nothing wrong with asking questions about it.

MELBER: Asking questions.  Many people have been asking– Governor Cuomo’s office questions about it.  Now he said he cannot comment on the topic, because you said a public dialogue is not helpful to the investigation.  Is– is that correct?  Or do you any rules prevent him from commenting on the corruption investigation?

BHARARA: People are– are– are able to exercise their– their public role in the way that they see fit.  They’re allowed to exercise their first amendment rights.  I think it is a different thing to say that people shouldn’t be– talking to potential witnesses in the case– when– when– prosecutors and F.B.I. agents and other investigators are looking at something.  But I don’t think I or anyone else has ever said that any particular person shouldn’t be talking about how he or she made decisions publicly, no.

MELBER: You didn’t say that?  Because– and I want to be clear.  What he said– I’m gonna read from the governor’s– “As I believe the U.S. attorney (you) has made it clear that ongoing public dialogue is not helpful to his investigation, we will have no additional comment on the matter.”

BHARARA: Well, first of all, I don’t think that’s true, because I’ve– I’ve heard comments that have been attributed– to the governor.  So, you know, how he wants to interpret what he can and can– cannot– cannot say is up to him.  And– and you can direct those questions elsewhere.

MELBER: More broadly, you have said the problem in New York’s political culture and something people relate to around the country is three men in a room making decisions for everybody else.  When you’re done here– who’s gonna be left in that room?

BHARARA: You know, I– I don’t know.  And the– and the membership of the room seems to be changing.  It changed last week when a new assembly speaker was put into power.  Look, I– I was speaking a little bit out of frustration as a citizen.  And I think a lot of people have expressed the same frustration.  When you have– you know, all the decisions that are so important (THROAT CLEARS) to the people of a state being made– you know, almost, you know, by fiat, by just three people in a room, that makes you wonder what kinds of decisions are being made.

I mean, imagine if the country as a whole we had, you know, every decision being made in quite that way?  And so people sometimes complain about the United States Senate and the– and the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives.  We’re not getting things done because there are disagreements.

Well, there’s a limit to how much you can criticize that, because it does mean that everyone has a representative who is looking after him or her in their respective districts.  And so just imagine if the same level of decisions were being made by just the president and– and John Boehner and now Mitch McConnell, I think people wouldn’t tolerate it for very long.  And so one wonders why it’s tolerated so much in New York State.

MELBER: I want to turn to Wall Street and particularly insider trading, where you’ve had a string of convictions, 87 and counting.  But recently a federal appeals court reversed some of that work, setting aside, I believe, up to six convictions.  And some say they are pushing a softer approach to insider trading.  You’re appealing that.  For now, did it just get easier to do insider trading?

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BHARARA: In our view, yes.  Yeah, we put in papers just a few weeks ago in court, asking for the entire court of appeals to revisit the question.  And we hope will prevail when we have– a further chance to make argument about it.  I mean– I’m not saying anything that we didn’t put in our legal papers.  But in our view– the court established new law, established a new standard as to what the benefit has to be– in connection with making a transaction in– in the stock market based on inside information.

And as we argue in our papers– we think that it’s– it’s given a little bit of a roadmap to those people who know that information is inside information, know it’s material and non-public– and– and seek to have an unfair advantage over average investors– by– by letting them know when they should stick their head in the sand and what kind of information they should have.

MELBER: Let me jump in.  When you say “information,” you’re talking about secrets that regular people wouldn’t have access to?  And the court here is saying that as long as people help others cheat, but don’t get a benefit, then they’re in the clear?  Is that right?

BHARARA:  More or less, they– they have argued and what we dispute in connection with their opinion is what the nature of that benefit has to be.  And so– the law has been, we think, very clear for a long time that the benefit has to be there.  There has to be some reason, something you get in exchange for that inside information.  But it doesn’t have to be– you know, a check.  It doesn’t have to be an automobile.  It doesn’t have to be, you know, an envelope full of cash.  It can be some other kind of benefit that’s somewhat indirect.

And what we think the court has been saying now (if it’s interpreted by other courts in the same way)– that anybody who is, for example, a CEO of a company, who decides that he or she wants to give very, very valuable inside information to a son or a nephew or a daughter or a girlfriend– that so long as they didn’t expect, you know, a very substantial pecuniary gain back, they can do that.  And I think most people would agree as a common sense matter, that’s not the way we should enforce our securities laws.

MELBER: So that’s an area where you’ve been very successful.  You’ve also done investigations across the board in Wall Street, but haven’t found– any significant crimes for individual defendants in relation to the financial crisis.  After all these investigations, does that make it clear in your mind that the financial meltdown was a product of bad decisions, but not criminal decisions?

BHARARA: I think it’s a combination of things.  I think there was criminal activity.  We brought some of those cases.  I think there were people who also committed acts that w– have been able to be– we’ve been able to hold some of those people accountable through civil mechanisms.  And the Justice Department and other offices have done that, as well.

Just because someone is not criminally charged doesn’t mean necessarily that a crime wasn’t committed.  Sometimes it’s the case that– you know, certain things happened and certain transactions happened and trades happened– that led up to the financial crisis, because people were being stupid.  Sometimes it was a case that people were being reckless.  Sometimes it was a case that people were being negligent.  And in some instances– there was probably criminal activity.  But you have to be able to prove that crimes took place.  And often it’s the case that you can only do that if you have either someone who’s on the inside, who cooperates with the government and gives testimony.  Or you have– recordings.  That’s one of the reasons–

MELBER: So do people–

BHARARA:  –we’ve been so successful in the insider trading cases is that we were able to monitor those things as they were happening.

MELBER: But do people need to just get over it, the idea that bankers aren’t gonna go to jail over the financial crisis?

BHARARA:  I– I don’t know if there’s something that people need to get over or not.  The– there’s an enormous amount of frustration– on the part of people, because they think that the economy went into the tank, because some people didn’t behave honorably.  Now not behaving honorably doesn’t necessarily mean that prosecutors can bring– criminal cases.  But there’s a lot of frustration, you know?  The frustration is shared by people like me and people like us in this office.  I mean, before we were prosecutors–

MELBER: Your frust–

BHARARA: –we’re citizens– we’re citizens and we pay taxes also.  And we have retirement accounts also.  And we have bills to pay also.  And so when the financial crisis hits, it hits people who work in government and prosecutors who are responsible for holding others accountable in the same way.  But, you know, y– you can only do what the law allows you to do and what the evidence gives you.

MELBER: Your office also here in New York, top federal prosecutor for national security cases big and small– your co– you’re prosecuting– Khalid al-Fuaz (PH)– a Saudi for (THROAT CLEARS) allegedly helping Osama bin Laden in London, among other alleged crimes.  Everyone gets why this would be a very important case.  But explain why it comes to your desk here in New York for all of this foreign terror.

BHARARA: Well, you know, the– for a long time now, this office has been the center of terrorism prosecutions.  And that’s, you know, t– true and happened long before I got here.  One of my predecessors who’s now the chair of the S.E.C., Mary Jo White, was a pioneer in figuring out ways– even before some more recent laws were passed by the Congress, in figuring out ways to hold terrorists accountable.

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The court here has a lot of experience in terrorism cases.  The prosecutors here, I think, are unparalleled in how much experience they have in trying terrorism cases.  The case you mentioned with respect to Fuaz– he’s charged in connection with the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, back in 1998.  And a series of people have been charged and convicted in connection with that same conduct in this court.  So it’s only natural that he be charged here, as well, I think.

MELBER: You have charged that case and others against– members and supporters of Al Qaeda.  They have a thread well-established to New York.  Do you think, at this point, from your work– that ISIS is also a direct threat to New York?

BHARARA: You know, other people, including the attorney general and the president– and defense secretary have talked about the nature of the ISIS threat.  (THROAT CLEARS) In our view– we think of everyone as a potential threat.  And even when people are not associated with particular organizations like Al Qaeda or Al-Shabab or ISIS– you have the lone wolf problem, as well.  So we– we don’t take anything lying down.  And we make sure that we’re, you know– knowledgeable about what the intelligence reports say.  And any threat we investigate completely and fully.  So I wouldn’t take anything off the table.

MELBER: If you and the F.B.I. do have a potential– (THROAT CLEARS) terror suspect that you’re surveiling or observing and you think they may act, is your legal priority getting them off the street as soon as possible, regardless of the charge?  Or waiting to see– how significant a charge you can get?

BHARARA: That’s a great question.  (THROAT CLEARS) And there’s a great balance that you have to engage in any time you’re tryin’ to protect people and using what law enforcement tools you have.  So on the one hand– as soon as you have information someone is gonna cause harm, you want to incapacitate that person, because the most important thing (and the F.B.I. director currently and the prior F.B.I. director have made this clear after 9/11) you want to prevent– you want to prevent harm.  You also want to hold people accountable.

But you have to make sure that when you take someone off the street, you have enough to put them away for a long period of time.  Otherwise, you’re gonna be back out there.  And you have actually not accomplished as much as you might have.  So in every case, you want to be careful to be monitoring the situation– and get as close as you can to– to having foolproof evidence, so you can put that person away for a long time, if in fact that person is trying to cause harm to Americans.

MELBER: Yeah, you mentioned of– of course, some of the shifts after 9/11.  The previous and current administration have focused on making F.B.I. and– and I think– federal prosecutors like yourself– more preemptive or disruptive in the– in their approach.  Do you think that is the right balance right now?  Or shouldn’t you be acting even earlier, in some way, against these potential terrorists?

BHARARA: I think we’ve learned a lot (THROAT CLEARS) since 9/11.  And I think that the– the current– and we can always evolve and get better and better and better as the threats change– and as our ability to get ahead of the terrorists change.  But I think that the approach to make sure that we are not just trying to figure out who set off the bomb, after the bomb goes off, and after people have been killed is the right one.

We want to make sure that we’re incapacitating in advance.  And sometimes– that’s not possible.  But I think it’s more possible now than it ever was, because the orientation of– of members of the F.B.I. and the N.Y.P.D. and prosecutors alike is to make sure that we’re preventing things from happening, as opposed to just picking up the pieces after something happens.

MELBER: And another area that’s evolving in that same way is cyber– both domestic crime and also– international threats– that we’re all tryin’ to struggle to understand.  You recently had a– big arrest and charge in a Silk Road case– regarding a range of crimes that people would recognize, drug trafficking– money laundering, but all happening through this sort of online portal.  Are these just old crimes on a new platform?  Or in your view, is there something different– about cyber crime itself today?

BHARARA: (THROAT CLEARS) There are a lot of different kinds of cyber crime.  The crime that you mentioned, which was basically– an open-air bazaar on the internet for the sale of all sorts of terrible things like– like narcotics and, like, child pornography, and– and other, you know, bad things– is a little bit like just a new forum– for an old crime.

But there are other threats that are much more serious.  And– and ways in which cyber criminals are tryin’ to affect our infrastructure.  Ways in which cyber criminals are stealing money out of banks– in a way that they weren’t able to do before.  So– a little bit– you know, fraud is fraud.  And– you know, doing harm is doing harm.  So the biggest change is the method through which people are able to do that.

It used to be the case that you rob a bank, you know, with a gun and a mask.  And now you can do it with the click of a mouse behind the anonymity of an internet from thousands of miles away.  It’s still seal– stealing money out of your bank account or my bank account.  But it’s being done in a much more scary way, making it much more likely that people can get away with it, ‘cause you don’t need the get away car.  And you don’t have the exploding ink in the– in the bag of cash anymore.  So it’s– it’s a big challenge.  And I think people need to be, you know, focused on that.

MELBER: When you started this job, did you expect to– have your office seize– so many thousands of bit coins?  Is this something you knew you–

BHARARA: No, when I started this office, I– I don’t know that bit coin existed five and a half years ago.  But it– it’s– look, like anything else, when– when you–

MELBER: Do you feel flush with all your bit coin?

BHARARA: You know, I feel good about it.  I feel good about it.  Unfortunately, we can’t use it.  But if you’re in the market for it, let– let us know, ‘cause we–

MELBER: Well, so you–

BHARARA:  –we do have– we do have to sell it.

MELBER:  Yeah, you have at least 174,000 from the– from the Silk Road case you mentioned.  You also have the arrest of– a leader, a CEO of one of the big coin exchanges.  And so is this currency, basically, more (THROAT CLEARS) risky and problematic, because it’s anonymous currency?

BHARARA: Yeah, I– I– I’m not gonna make a comment on– on whether or not the currency is viable or not.  I’ve said many times that there’s nothing inherently wrong with bit coin.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with virtual currency.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with cash.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with hedge funds.  Nothing inherently wrong with a lot of institutions– or a lot of ways of doing business.

The problem, from our perspective, is when you start using something, whether it’s an old form– like just a check, you know?  You can– you can– engage in a check hiding scheme with old-fashioned checks.  Or you can engage in massive fraud and narcotics trafficking and other conspiracies by using a new form of currency.  And so we seized the bit coin in the same way that we seize cash accounts of– of drug dealers and cars of arms traffickers and homes–

MELBER: But let me– let me–

BHARARA:  –of those people too.

MELBER: Let me push you on that a little bit.

BHARARA: Sure.

MELBER: People would say if your accountant is advising you to open too many offshore accounts or too many tax-sheltered accounts, they can be legal– but you should be careful.  That is suspicious– many people would tell you.  Bit coin is new.  People are tryin’ to make sense of it.  You are arresting top people in some of these exchanges.  Can you give any guidance on whether this is a risky thing people should be careful with?

BHARARA: Yeah, people should use their common sense, you know?  There are presumably legitimate uses for– for bit coin and for–

MELBER: What are they?

BHARARA: –and for people wanting to in– no, people believe in privacy.  We believe in privacy.  I think privacy’s an important thing.  And there are people who I think, in good faith, want to be able to have, you know, not– not to have prying eyes into their transactions and into their lives.  And we respect that.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The problem is, there’s lots of bad guys.  And so at the same time that you have people who, you know, care a lot about liberty and want to be able to use– you know, currency, engage in transactions, without people being– being able to see it, there are also people who want to tear buildings down and want to kill Americans and want to put poison into people’s children and want to, you know, eng– you know– have weapons– sometimes weapons of mass destruction.  And what’s the way that they’re gonna try to do that?  They’re gonna try to do it through anonymous means also.

So anytime you develop something, it’s the nature of human conduct, I suppose.  Any time you have something that makes it easier to be anonymous, you’re gonna also attract lots and lots of people (and maybe it’s the case a preponderance of people) who are not doing it in good faith and are not doing it for good purpose, but are doing it to harm other people.  And when you’re gonna harm other people and– and– and you’re– you’re tryin’ to do it through whatever means, it’s our job to protect the public against that.  And we’re gonna keep doing that no matter what the technology is.

MELBER: We talked about prevention.  We talked about cases.  Let’s talk a little bit about prison.  Many prosecutors are much more focused on putting people in jail– than worrying about what happens afterward.  You’ve been leading– an investigative and reform effort I think it’s fair to say– on the nation’s second-largest prison facility, Rikers Island– documenting some of the abuse there by prison guards against– t– teenage inmates.  You’ve published the results.  Some of that is known.  My question for you today is why do you care what happens to these people who’ve been convicted of a crime and are over there in prison?  Why do you see that as part of your job?

BHARARA: It– it– it’s essential part of our job.  I mean, our job is to make sure we’re upholding the rule of law.  And we’re ma– our job is to make sure that anybody who commits bad acts is held accountable, if it’s in our power to do so.  And part of that is to make sure we’re upholding the civil rights laws.  And just because you are behind bars doesn’t mean you’re beyond the Constitution.

And some of the most vulnerable people in society (you mentioned them) are young people, you know, 16, 17, 18 years old, who are thrown into Rikers Island.  And as we demonstrate (THROAT CLEARS) in the report that we issued and further in the lawsuit that we brought against the city– some of them are treated very, very, very harshly and very poorly.

And the reason you care about it is not only because you care about upholding the civil rights laws, but also as a common sense matter, it’s better for– for everyone.  So if you send young people into prison without taking care that they’re being treated humanely as opposed to be being beaten to a pulp where there are no television cameras who can record it and where there’s no discipline of the officers who are engaging in that kind of heinous behavior, you’re causing a cycle of violence that makes it more dangerous and difficult for the guards themselves in the prison.

You make it more likely that when those people get out– and by the way, many of them are– are mentally ill and most of them have not been convicted yet.  They’re just– they’re pretrial, so they’re presumed innocent.  And when you have this cycle of violence with people like that– that doesn’t make any sense and is, in fact, in violation of the Constitution.

If and when they get out of prison, they’re much more likely to be dangerous to the community then, because you haven’t done anything to help them or rehabilitate them.  What you’ve taught them is that the system is not fair, that no one cares about us, and if you care about law enforcement writ large, not just, you know, notching– you know, victories in your belt and sending a certain number of people to jail, that’s not what the enterprise is about.  That’s not what the Department of Justice, it’s about justice, should be about.  It’s about–

MELBER: And let me ask you–

BHARARA:  –protecting everyone’s rights.

MELBER: As you documented and The New York Times documented, there’s widespread use and abuse of solitary confinement at that facility, as well.  Many medical experts and you and Human Rights– Group have talked about the idea that abuse of solitary confinement particularly about juveniles is a form of torture.  As a prosecutor, do you have a view on that?

BHARARA: I’m not gonna get into the– to the definition of torture, but we– we very strongly have a view as written out in our report that– you know, punitive segregation or solitary confinement for young people is particularly terrible.  And in fact, we haven’t even resolved the case yet.  We haven’t come to a complete agreement on the case yet.  But– as an interim measure, the city has already decided to adopt some reforms, including, I believe– the suspension of all solitary confinement for 16 and 17 year olds.  So that’s progress right there.  I mean, look–

MELBER: Was that because of your work?

BHARARA: I mean, I think it’s in part because of our work.  And– and also I think because there are good intentions on the part of some people who are helping to run the prison at this point.  I mean, all of this is an evolution.  I think, you know, the– the issue of how long people should spend in jail, how they should be treated in jail, what kinds of programs should be available to them so they can prosper in society when they come out of jail are all things that are useful to talk about and are important to talk about and important to focus on, not just sending people to prison in the first place.

MELBER: Now your path here– involved time as a– as a lawyer and a prosecutor.  Also time on the Senate– Judiciary Committee, workin’ for Chuck Schumer.  How often do you talk to Senator Schumer?

BHARARA: I– I think I’ve spoken to the senator just a few times in the last five and a half years.  Be–

MELBER: Is that deliberately you guys avoid talking too much?

BHARARA: I’m– I’m a busy guy.  He’s a busy guy.  As– as– senators, I think, know when they recommend people for posts and as the president himself understands and has said to all the U.S. attorneys once– in the White House, when he nominates people to the post– you know, they may nominate you or recommend you, but your job is to do right by everyone and be independent and as independent as you possibly can be.  And I think we’ve demonstrated that in case after case after case.

MELBER: So for those out there who think there’s some sort of connection between the cases you’re pursuing and– and maybe your old boss, Chuck Schumer, what– what do you say to that?

BHARARA: That’s ridiculous nonsense.  (LAUGH) Anybody who knows me and knows him and knows how this office operates knows that we bring cases based on what the facts and the law are.  And we don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.  We don’t care if you’re– wealthy or impoverished.  If– if the– if you’re per– from, you know, one side of the tracks or the other.  If you committed a crime and it’s a righteous case to bring, we bring it.

MELBER: I don’t know if you– want to get into evaluating your– I guess your boss’s boss.  But I’m curious if you want to say anything about what you think President Obama’s legacy will be on– on criminal justice and national security.

BHARARA: Well, you know, I can’t speak.  That’s much– that’s– above my pay grade, as they say.  I think that– I– I hope that part of the legacy is based on some of the work that’s been done by the really amazing men and women in this office.  And so, for example, on national security, while debates rage on in Washington and in other places about what the proper forum is to try terrorists.  And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was supposed to be tried here.  The attorney general called and gave me his decision, you know, over five and a half years ago now.

And during that time, he has not been prosecuted in any way in Guantanamo Bay.  And again, that debate is for other people.  And I was not part of that.  We just remain ready to try the case here in civilian court if we were given the opportunity.  But dur– during that time, while he remains pending trial– the men and women of this office have tried and convicted terrorist after terrorist after terrorist, including the son in law of Osama bin Laden– Sulaiman Abuse Ghaith, including, you know– a terrorist teacher from the U.K. named Abuse Hamza were on trial now, as you mentioned.

And in all those cases, I think we showcased why our legal system, even though it has flaws, is the best one in the world.  And all these– you know, terrible consequences that people thought would arise– about giving terrorists platforms and– you know, run away– you know, justice, that– that hasn’t come to pass.  And so I think part of the legacy in the national security side is quietly and studiously over the course of a number of years we have shown the strength of the criminal system on the civil side, civilian side.

MELBER: We were talking about– President Obama’s legacy on criminal justice and national security.  I have other questions.  Did you have anything else you wanted to say on that?

BHARARA: No.

MELBER: Okay.  When you do learn of any kind of threat level or– or– individual threats against New York, involve your jurisdiction and potentially– action and prosecution by your office, how does that work?  What can you tell us about that?

BHARARA: You know, we jump into action all the time.  We have in this office very seasoned terrorism prosecutors and investigators.  And we work with the Joint Terrorism Taskforce in New York that is, I think, the best– antiterrorism fighting tool anywhere in the country and probably the world.  And what people don’t realize is we have prosecution after prosecution that we bring, but there are threats that arrive all the time.

And information that comes into the New York City Police Department or the F.B.I. all the time about a potential person who wants to do harm or is coming through New York City or is traveling here or is in conversations with people– thinking about plotting something.  Sometimes that leads to a case.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  And sometimes it doesn’t pan out.  And you have to chase down those leads.  And there are people who are at the J.T.T.F. literally 24 hours a day.  And sometimes my folks are here 24 hours a day to make sure that we– that we nail that down.  It happens all the time.  And it’s a little bit invisible.  And I think people should be thankful that there’s all this invisible work that’s going on.

MELBER: In the area of some of your investigations that haven’t gone as far, you have critics who say you’ve gotten out ahead of yourself.  People have pointed to the investigation into the lane closures in New Jersey– where your office put out a subpoena and withdrew it.  Another case– where you subpoenaed a CBS– producer and then withdrew it.  Does that mean that you’ve gotten out ahead of yourself at times?

BHARARA:  Well, first, I’m not gonna comment on subpoenas we may or may not have issued, ‘cause we don’t comment on that.  Second, I– I don’t think that we’ve ever gotten out– ahead of ourselves.  We are aggressive.  We’re appropriately aggressive.  That’s the history of the office.  And I think the public is better for it.

MELBER: So you– you can’t speak– there have been reports about those withdrawn subpoenas.  You can’t confirm–

BHARARA: I don’t– I don’t comment on–

MELBER:  –or deny that?

BHARARA: I don’t comment on reports.

MELBER: Is it a bad sign in general if a prosecutor withdraws a subpoena or sometimes that’s the appropriate course?

BHARARA: No– speaking– speaking very generally– sometimes it makes sense for a particular office to engage in an investigation.  Sometimes it makes sense for another office to engage in investigations.  Sometimes we do investigations simultaneously with other offices.  We’ve been actually pairing up– more so than I think ever before with the DA’s offices– sometimes with the state attorney general.  So I– I don’t think people should read too much into– you know, anonymous reports in newspapers and magazines.

MELBER: What about people who read– and this is broader than your office, but people who read into the current Justice Department as being– too aggressive towards– free speech and first amendment– freedoms in its pursuit of information through– reporters?

BHARARA: Yeah– again, I’m not gonna get ahead of what people are saying out of the Justice Department.  But I think– the attorney general and others have made clear that they care about these issues very much, they care about freedom of the press very much.  When I worked in the Senate, you know, personally, I– I helped to work on a bill, when I was working for the Senate Judiciary Committee that would establish, in law, a much more clear reporter’s privilege.

So it’s something that is on the minds of people as professionals.  It’s also on the minds of many people– personally, because of their backgrounds, including mine.  And I think what you’re talking about– has been addressed by the attorney general, in terms of new guidelines.  But again– like everything else– debate is good.  And sometimes it makes sense to revise rules along the way.  Sometimes it makes sense to keep the ones you got.  But it depends on what the circumstances are and what the debate, you know– you know, provides.

MELBER: In the– little time that we have left, I thought we’d try some non-legal questions, which could be–

BHARARA: Ma– math questions?  I’m not so good at math.

MELBER: It could be fun–

BHARARA: That’s why I became a lawyer.

MELBER:  –for both of us.  (LAUGH) First of all, just– just thinking about it, when you look at some of the cases you’ve pursued, we– we’ve spoken about– some of the most successful executives in the country and some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world.  Do you care that these are powerful opponents or enemies?  Does that cross your mind in any way?

BHARARA:  N– no, not really.  I mean, if it– if it begins to cross your mind, then you can’t do your job.  I– I– I do find it funny sometimes when people say– “Are you concerned about going after powerful people, politicians, or, you know, hedge fund managers?”  And I find that a little bit silly, because a lot of what we do, the bread and butter of what we do is go after– you know, really, really violent criminals.  People who kill witnesses.  People who shoot children.  People who try to bring buildings down and– and try to destroy America.  When you have those kinds of cases going on, you know, a guy in a suit with a lot of money is– doesn’t pose much of a threat to our psyche.

MELBER: I– I want to push you on that, not– not to be annoying, but to that point, Americans are afraid of terror attacks, because they feel that they can hit us anywhere anytime.  So you would seem to be someone who by nature of your work is more in that– in that line of threat.  So that– but that– you’re saying that somehow you block that out?

BHARARA: Yeah.  And look, the– the people who are really on the line and really in the line of fire are the– are the cops and the– and the agents who are the ones who put on bulletproof vests every day.  And as we saw recently in New York, can get shot just by being at work.  And so, you know, I guess– I guess prosecutors just– are sometimes threatened– when you go after, you know, powerful and violent people.

But generally speaking, the ones that we wanted– that we– that we care about are the ones who are on– in the field and are out doing the arrests and are out, you know, around the world, trying to make sure that they’re getting information on terrorists who are trying to do us harm.  So we don’t worry too much about our own safety.  And importantly, we have to be, you know, independent and fearless.  You know, we’re not elected.  So we don’t have, you know, local political clubs that we have to be beholden to.  We just– we just do this job, you know, without fear or favor, like the oath requires.

MELBER:  Do you have a favorite case?

BHARARA: I love all my children equally.  (LAUGH)

MELBER: Nothing?  Nothing where you went home at night–

BHARARA: I can’t– they’re all–

MELBER: –and said, “Wow, that was important.”

BHARARA: Look, you know, the nice thing is– that this office has so much breadth– again, before I got here and it’ll have this after I leave.  But I think we have– shown the public– that– whether you’re talking about cyber cases, whether you’re talking about terrorism, whether you’re talking about Wall Street, whether you’re talking about public corruption, whether you’re talking about the gang problem, whether you’re talking about arms trafficking, we’ve had leading cases in every single one of those areas.  So there’s a lot to be proud of.  And the– and the– the people here deserve the thanks of the public.

MELBER: Favorite– TV show about court?

BHARARA: Oh gosh– well, when I was in– when I was in– college, I used to watch L.A. Law.  I don’t– I don’t wa– watch a lot of television courtroom dramas anymore.

MELBER: You have a lot of courtroom drama.

BHARARA: We have courtroom drama that’s real, yeah.

MELBER: Law & Order and The Wire and those kind of shows?

BHARARA: You know, I’ve watched some of those, but not religiously, no.

MELBER: You said growing up you–

BHARARA: I watched all five seasons of Breaking Bad, though.

MELBER: Favorite character?

BHARARA: Well, Walter White.

MELBER: Gotta be, yeah.

BHARARA: I like the D.E.A. agent, too, a lot, though.

MELBER: But, you know, they have the new show comin’ out about the lawyer, Saul.

BHARARA: Better Call Saul.

MELBER: Better Call Saul.

BHARARA: I recorded that last night.  I haven’t watched it yet.

MELBER: Okay.  Is he a good lawyer?

BHARARA: No.  (LAUGH) He’s not.

MELBER: I was gonna ask you about your upbringing, which you’ve talked about.  Parents that pushed you, a dad that you said was– like a tiger dad instead of tiger mom.  What do they think of you now?  What does your dad say when he sees you– on the news announcing these– these cases?

BHARARA: I– I think– I think they like it.  I think my mom likes it.  They– I– as I joked, they’ve finally gotten over the fact that their Indian American son didn’t become a doctor.  But it took, you know, doing all of this before they finally realized, “Okay, I guess it’s not a bad gig.”  But m– you know, my parents– they wouldn’t talk explicitly about public service, when we were growing up.  But they– it was very clear that they thought it was important to give back.

And maybe it’s, you know, common for immigrant families who– who got so much from America that they think that.  You know, my dad left and came with nothing– when I was about a year, year and a half old to the United States.  So he has always been very, very, very– interested in making sure that– that we give back and that, you know, my brother and I give back.

MELBER: Does he have any tips for you?  Has he given you any advice nowadays?

BHARARA: He follows everything I do.  And he, from time to time, will give advice.  And I– and I– I pretend to listen to it.

MELBER: Do you want to share any of it?

BHARARA: No.

MELBER: All right.  (LAUGH) This is– this is also the– teeth pulling part of the interview.  I did want to ask if you enter politics, would it be in New Jersey where you’re from or New York where you work?

BHARARA: Yeah.  Objection to the premise of the question.  I’m– I’m not interested in doing that.

MELBER: Objection overruled.

BHARARA: Yeah, I don’t– do we have a judge?  (LAUGH)

MELBER: Do I– is there–

BHARARA: I don’t think so.

MELBER: I don’t think so.

BHARARA: Yeah, I think you better call Saul maybe.

MELBER: (LAUGH) No answer to the idea of New Jersey versus New York?  A lot of people think that whether or not you have any interest, I understand– previous denials– like Rudy Giuliani and others who’ve excelled in this office– you could excel– in public office in an elected capacity if you wanted to.

BHARARA: Well, I appreciate that.  And I will– I will rely on your vote if I ever choose to run.  But I have no interest in doing that.

MELBER: So this sustained interest, you know what I’m talking about, because it’s– it’s been all over a lot of New York and New Jersey press, is basically people barkin’ up the wrong tree?

BHARARA: Yeah.  Yeah, I mean, look– I care about public service.  I care about honest government.  I mean, part of the reason that public corruption is a priority for us is for that reason that, you know, it’s dispiriting and discouraging when you have people who are supposed to be– upholding their end of the bargain after a vote, when they don’t do it.  But we– you know, I’m– I’m a prosecutor.  I’m a lawyer.  This is what I plan to do for a long time.

[END]

Financial Reform and New York

In conversation, Preet Bharara and Ari Melber