The Vengeful Indian

Is Preet Bharara, the man who started it all, an attorney seeking celebritydom as a crusader for justice or is he propelled by a desire to prove he is a better Indian in America than Indians at home?

Published: 05th January 2014 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th January 2014 11:32 AM   |  A+A-

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Not once in the history of the American judicial system has a rock star dedicated a song to a prosecuting attorney. India-born, 45-year-old Manhattan US Attorney Preetinder Singh Bharara, who loves to court controversy, pun unintended, by taking on the powerful and famous—many of them prominent Indians and Asians—was the recipient of this rare honour conferred by Bruce Springsteen. At a concert in Hartford, Connecticut, which the Bhararas attended, The Boss sang,

“Send the robber barons straight to hell.

The greedy thieves who came around

And ate the flesh of everything they found.”

Bharara is a big time Springsteen fan, and grew up in Ashbury Park, NJ, which was once the singer’s stomping ground. In his office, Bharara keeps a photo of the singer and his mother posing together. He listens to Springsteen at night when he is working late. Notwithstanding his favourite’s singer’s lyrics “It’s hard to be a saint in this city”, to most of India, Bharara has become a sinner in the city of New York. As the storm generated by the Bharara-ordered arrest and humiliation of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade refuses to die down, fingers are being pointed at the crusading attorney as one who pulls stunts to be in the news for prosecuting influential Indian achievers and sending them to jail. “He wants to prove that he is more American than any other Indian living and working in the US,” says an Indian diplomat. International award-winning filmmaker Meera Dewan speaks about the complexities non-whites face in America. “I’m not talking specifically about Bharara because I am in no position to judge the man. Having lived in North America for a while, I have seen biased treatment and a lack of understanding towards non-white beings. Some become rebels and others have confused identities. They are constantly searching for a sense of belonging.

As a result, coloured people want to ‘fit into’ and ‘identify’ with the mainstream and do so by going out of their way to please certain sections of society.”

TALKING TOUGH ON INDIA

Currently, India isn’t pleased. The deadline for Khobragade’s indictment is January 13 and Bharara’s men are gathering evidence to get a conviction. Though the US State Department and the Indian government are trying to resolve Crisis Khobragade, the American government has decided to proceed with prosecution for visa fraud. In spite of massive protests in India, Bharara remains unfazed. His stand is that the prosecutor’s job is to bring anyone who breaches the law to justice, “no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are”. Khobragade is accused of exploiting her maid Sangeeta Richard and not paying her minimum wages under US law. External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin categorically states that the only victim in this case is Khobragade. According to him, the proceedings against the diplomat are not in accordance with the Vienna Convention and therefore are gross violations. “The Devyani case is amazing because of the manner in which she was apprehended and incarcerated. What is more remarkable is that Manhattan has hundreds of UN officials, consular officials and wealthy Wall Street types who have undocumented nannies and who exploit their staff in myriad ways,” says Arjun Appadurai, Goddard Professor, Media, Culture and Communication, New York University. The same week, Khobragade was picked up by the New York Police, Bharara ordered the arrest of another Indian, a New York chemist named Purna Chandra Aramalla, for allegedly running a con on Medicaid and Medicare. It’s not just Indians Bharara has taken on: he had charged 49 current and former Russian diplomats with medical fraud. Russia accuses the US of “biased and politically motivated” prosecution of its citizens. Vladimir Putin signed a presidential decree banning Bharara from entering Russia.

THE POPULIST ATTORNEY

In less than two years as US attorney, Bharara has earned the name The Sherrif of Wall Street by shaking up investment circles, riding on the popular feeling against hedge fund managers and bankers making billions while Americans lost homes and jobs in the economic Armageddon of 2008. Bharara has a weakness for Hollywood; after his department charged 46 defendants with insider trading offences and procured 30 guilty pleas, he paraphrased Gordon Gekko’s famous quip by saying “greed is not good”. He is known for his sharp wit; at a meeting of hedge fund managers he began his speech by saying that he didn’t bring subpoenas along. Among the big scalps he claimed were Indians and Asians celebrated for achieving the American Dream. Between 2009 and 2012, he led the investigation against the Galleon Group insider trading scam that involved billionaire hedge fund managers like Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta and 60 others. Rajaratnam was sent to jail, convicted on 14 charges related to insider trading. He ruefully praised the US judicial system. “If this had happened in Sri Lanka, I would’ve gone scot-free and in the evening, I would be sitting at home with the judge having dinner.” The second celebrity head to roll was that of the iconic Rajat Gupta—former McKinsey & Company chief, co-founder of the Indian School of Business and the American India Foundation. Gupta was convicted in June 2012 on the same charges as Rajaratnam—insider trading charges of four criminal felony counts of conspiracy and securities fraud. He got two years in prison, supervised release for a year more and had to pony $5 million in fines, though he remains at liberty on appeal. His co-conspirator, the Doon School educated, IIT alumnus and Wharton graduate Anil Kumar, who was a senior partner and director at McKinsey turned approver. Apart from these high-profile convictions, Bharara also toppled Kumar’s colleague Rajiv Goel from Intel Capital and made Indian technology expert Sandeep Aggarwal plead guilty to giving information about a pending deal between Microsoft and Yahoo to a SAC Capital portfolio manager.

The self-deprecatory Bharara had shrugged off the praise he got for the convictions, saying that defendants and prosecutors sometimes sharing an ethnic background and heritage was purely coincidental. Bharara’s actions against Ponzi scamster Bernie Madoff got him accolades for securing the largest forfeiture in US history— $7.2 billion. But he faces criticism that he has brought no criminal or civil cases against the bankers whose actions helped precipitate the 2008 Wall Street crisis.

THE AMBITIOUS HERO

After his high publicity coups, the Indian media made Bharara a hero for bringing white-collar criminals to justice. Today the honeymoon is over. He has become a hate figure in India after the Khobragade episode. Both the Indian government and media were furious over Bharara’s defence of the US ‘evacuating’ Richard’s family from India—a method used by prosecutors to protect victims, witnesses and their families in an ongoing case, implying that the Indian judicial system cannot protect witnesses. Senior Indian diplomats who have served at top levels in America and the UN refer to Bharara as an “overzealous Indian-origin official” who is unfairly targeting Indians to embellish his political and professional credentials. Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid called the Khobragade incident “a conspiracy rather than an act of gigantic stupidity”, saying there was “no need to take Preet Bharara or his comments seriously”. After he had brought down Wall Street’s heavy-hitters, Bharara’s critics had accused him of pandering to downturn-weary America’s hunger for justice. “I suspect the Madoff scandal, the housing crisis, and the credit crisis all led the prosecutor’s office to think they ought to take a look at Wall Street,” Stephen Bainbridge, a UCLA law and business professor had explained in an interview. “But the fact that it was politically advantageous was certainly the icing on the cake.” Today, Bharara occupies the job the politically ambitious Rudy Giuliani once held. Like Giuliani, who is known as the man who cleaned up New York, Bharara has sent to prison mafia dons and Latino gangsters, Pakistani Al-Qaeda terrorists Faizal Shahzad and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and exposed corruption in politics. In 2012, Giuliani made an unsuccessful bid for a Republican Party presidential nomination.

EXPLOITING AN INDIA PARALLEL

With high-profile arrests and convictions, it is as if the Attorney of South Manhattan was drawing on his idealistic Indian DNA, going to war against the “creeping culture of corruption” across politics, Wall Street and in business, according to Bharara. However, the Khobragade case seems to be a case of messing up that zeal. Meera Khanna, Trustee of Women’s Welfare Trust, says, “This is probably a classic case of Mutt and Jeff. The US Secretary of State expresses ‘regret’ while Bharara defends the arrest and the manner. I don’t think Bharara’s personal attitude to Indians is the important issue. His past history in successfully prosecuting Gupta, just makes him a very compliant tool in the hands of the US Government which is out there to prove a point. A few decades ago, one had great respect for the judicial and law enforcement agencies in the US. That has greatly diminished as the investigative media has exposed the ‘feet of clay’. One knows fully that glaring lacunae and injustices do occur. So, for the US Government or Bharara to sing the tune of ‘equal treatment’ is a bit of a laugh. The treatment meted out to the diplomat seemed that is reserved for known criminals and drug addicts, both of which she is not. But were the enforcement agencies acting as per the rulebook or were they put up to it?” she asks. While a certain section of Indian Americans believe that Indians were overreacting and expecting too much from Bharara by virtue of him being born Indian, Meera disagrees. “I don’t think there is any overreaction. When our ex-President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was searched at an US airport, we did not react. In fact, there was very little media coverage. Did the Delhi airport authorities search President Bill Clinton when he travelled to India? Most Western nations need to be reminded that the sovereignty of every nation, however small, is precious to that nation. As such you cannot ride roughshod over a country’s self-esteem. When a big country does exactly that based on its financial muscle, then it gets magnified. Also, diplomatic courtesies are reciprocal,” she says.

A British newspaper reported about an email “circulating among South Block officials shows Bharara has come under the scanner for targeting people of Indian origin”. The Khobragade case could be the first trophy case that may leave Bharara red-faced. Khobragade’s lawyer Daniel Arshack told the Associated Press that the agent who drew up charges against her made “a key error” in reading a form submitted on behalf of Richard—“erroneously and disastrously” mistaking Khobragade’s listed base salary of $4,500 per month for what she intended to pay her housekeeper. The prosecutor’s office has rubbished the claim.

THE EARLY YEARS

Growing up in New Jersey, Bharara did not have housemaids doing the work. Born in 1968, he came to America as a toddler, with his parents from Firozpur, Punjab. They had crossed over to India during Partition. His father Jagdish Bharara was a Sikh and his mother a Hindu. Jagdish was a bookworm and the first in his family to attend college. Jagdish left India initially to start his medical residency in England. In the early 1970s, the Bhararas moved to the United States, settling in Monmouth County, NJ, where Jagdish became a successful paediatrician while his wife stayed a homemaker to raise their two sons, Preet and Vineet. Like his parents’ mixed religion marriage, Bharara’s mother-in-law was Jewish while his father-in-law a Muslim. “Four different families, practising four different faiths, all compelled to flee half-a-century ago because of their religion. Even when my wife fasts for Yom Kippur, and my father-in-law fasts for Ramadan, I get to stuff my face with samosas all day,” jokes the attorney with a reputation for gentle but sharp wit. He is especially close to brother Vinnie Bharara, who recently sold his company Quidsi, the holder of Diapers.com and Soap.com—which made millions selling sanitary napkins on the web—to Amazon.com for more than half a billion dollars. Preet is reportedly a wealthy man thanks to an early investment in his younger brother’s company. Unwilling to discuss his net worth, he says Vinnie picks up the tab when the two go out to dinner ever since he “came into a little bit of cash.”

Bharara became a naturalised US citizen when he was 12. After fourth grade, he enrolled in Ranney School, in Tinton Falls, NJ, whose founder, Russell G. Ranney, a World War II vet, loved lavender suits and owned a turquoise Mercedes car. But discipline was strict; students were required to wear blue blazers and gray flannel trousers. While in school, Bharara decided to become a lawyer after reading To Kill a Mockingbird —perhaps seeing himself as a modern Atticus. In seventh grade, his serendipitous discovery of the play Inherit the Wind, portraying the great defence attorney Clarence Darrow, who Preet idolised, strengthened his resolve. (He often watches the Spencer Tracy version DVD of Inherit the Wind even now).

But his ties to his hometown remain strong. When Bharara became the Manhattan Attorney in 2009, his favourite high school teacher Barbara Tomlinson got a phone call from his mother asking if she was the same Tomlinson who had taught at Ranney. Then Bharara came on the phone, “Hi, Mrs T, this is Preet,” he said. “I’d like you to come to my swearing-in.” One of his favourite stories at lectures is the one about Ranney firing Tomlinson. She had protested to Ranney for raising the salary of the teachers but getting them to work longer hours, which did not amount to a raise at all. Bharara by then had been admitted to Harvard. Angry over the perceived injustice, and ignoring Tomlinson’s advice not to jeopardise his future at Harvard, Preet organised students to lead a protest against the principal championing their teacher. It didn’t work, but the sense of injustice stayed with him.

In 2010, at the commencement address at his alma mater, Bharara quoted the famed Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes and Bobby Kennedy. “I received the lesson that the fullest life is not spent in merely acquiring material wealth or esoteric knowledge; the fullest life involves a commitment to act also for the benefit of other people.”

Bharara’s friend, Viet Dinh—who was an Assistant Attorney General of the United States from 2001 to 2003, under George W Bush and the chief architect of the USA Patriot Act—recalls meeting the young Harvard grad for the first time where they spent an entire night discussing whether man was good or evil. Bharara favoured the second opinion. “He asked questions and tried to find the right answers rather than the converse, which is ask who he is and then therefore derive the answer from there,” Dinh says. “He knows who he is. He knows what his job requires and he calls it the way he sees it. He is as straight as the Nevada Highway is long.”

After Harvard, Bharara studied at Columbia Law School, graduating in 1993. He became a summer volunteer in the campaign of Mark Green, who was then running for New York City’s public advocate—his first brush with politics. In 2000, Bharara became a prosecutor in the Southern District, New York, where he successfully prosecuted organised crime, narcotics, and securities fraud.

Soon, Southern District prosecutor Ben Lawsky, now chief of staff to New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, and former chief counsel to New York Sen. Charles Schumer—a leading member of the Senate Judiciary Committee— recommended Bharara as his replacement. He began working for Schumer in February 2005. Bharara’s investigation into the firing of eight US attorneys claimed the career of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Schumer reportedly calls Bharara “a very smart lawyer, good prosecutor, but on the Judiciary Committee you need to be able to see both sides of issues and work well, especially with people on both sides of the aisle. Preet is just one of these people who has the ability to get along with anyone”. After Obama won his second term as President, Schumer recommended Bharara’s name for the job of the new Southern District Attorney in February 2009. Handpicked by the president, Bharara’s term expires in 2014 and it is widely speculated that he would run for political office like Giuliani. Bharara has shown no signs of doing that yet, saying that he loves his job which is “his life’s honour”.

A MAKE OR BREAK BATTLE

When he was a sophomore in Harvard, Bharara worked as a radio jockey for the student radio station WHRB. Soon, he left journalism for law. Ever the wit, he told a meeting of financial journalists, “I just didn’t have the face for radio.” As the Khobragade affair drags on, and Bharara refuses to capitulate, insisting on prosecuting her in spite of diplomatic immunity, it has to be seen whether he will lose face as an American Indian whose sense of justice spurred him on to prove that he was a better Indian in the US than Indians in India. The explanation could lie in the famous Springsteen’s hit Made In USA.

Diplomatic mess

October 15, 2012: Devyani Khobragade files for Sangeeta Richard’s A-3 visa

November 14, 2012: Richard receives visa and signs contract offering `30,000 pay.

June 23, 2013: Richard goes missing. Police informed.

July 2013: Lawyer calls Khobragade to negotiate Richard visa status. Khobragade refuses.

July 8, 2013: Richard’s passport revoked.

July 15, 2013:  Phillip Richard files plea alleging wife is in police custody. Withdraws it.

September 20, 2013: Khobragade files for anticipatory anti-suit injunction in Delhi HC.

November 19, 2013: Non-bailable warrant against Richard.

December 6, 2013: Warrant forwarded to US embassy with a request to arrest the woman.

December 10, 2013: Richard family flies to New York.

December 11, 2013: Preet Bahara, US Attorney for Southern District of New York, files criminal complaint against Khobragade. She is arrested, strip searched and thrown into cell with petty criminals.

December 30, 2013: US says visa fraud charges against Khobragade will not be dropped.

December 31, 2013 US says review of application for transfer of Khobragade to UN which will give her full diplomatic immunity still on.

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