To former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was the apocalypse. But to New York’s implacably corrupt political culture, Bharara amounted to footprints in the sand. Now the tide is rolling in.
Extraordinary drama attended the departure of the 48-year-old, India-born prosecutor from his post. Refusing to resign, as requested, before finally being fired Saturday afternoon by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Bharara thumbed his nose at President Trump on his way out the door—a gesture guaranteed, if not actually calculated, to magnify his political presence in the enthusiastically anti-Trump Empire State.
That presence already was considerable. His work during seven years as one of America’s top federal prosecutors was exemplary, putting to rest all doubts about the fundamentally corrupt nature of New York government and politics. Along the way, Bharara, famously fond of media attention, became a star. He liked to keep the pot boiling with his signature line, “Stay tuned!”—the phrase implying further misery for New York’s top pols.
Yet Bharara leaves with much of his most important work unfinished. Silver and his erstwhile state senate counterpart, former majority leader Dean Skelos, remain free while appellate courts consider their corruption convictions. Trials are months away for one-time Governor Cuomo ally Joseph Percoco and seven others caught up in Bharara’s probe of Albany. And an investigation of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration now slips into limbo with the prosecutor’s departure. But it doesn’t diminish Bharara’s efforts to observe that, when his tally book is closed, it most likely will show that he took down some big hitters—though ultimately all that has really changed are the names on a few doors along the corridors of power.
Silver’s was likely the best known of those names. No one symbolized the cynicism and entrenched moral decay of public life in New York more than the then-assembly speaker at the height of his influence. Silver was, at times, the most powerful politician in New York; his conviction on multiple corruption charges took courage, patience, and deep prosecutorial respect for the rule of law.
But Silver has been gone for two years now, and nothing fundamental has shifted. The assembly remains a one-man band, Silver having been replaced by Carl Heastie, a career politician from the Bronx, who is as much a tool of the state’s public-employee unions as his predecessor was. Heastie has, for example, taken advantage of a state constitutional anomaly that vests control of education policy in the assembly to downgrade further New York’s already shameful public school teaching standards—to the delight of the teachers’ unions. And Heastie doesn’t even try to hide his enthusiasm for what he calls “bring[ing] resources back to the community”—or pork-barrel spending, the bedrock on which most corruption in New York historically has arisen.
Indeed, it was Bharara’s investigations of the Cuomo administration’s Buffalo Billion initiative—a massive, if now foundering, pork-barrel project—that led to Bharara’s indictment of Percoco, Albany mega-player Alain E. Kaloyeros, and other key administration figures. But rather than take a lesson from that, the governor continues to pass out pork-barrel bucks by the bagful, just last week proposing the so-called Brooklyn Billion, a $1.4 billion cash shower modeled on the Buffalo initiative. So far the Buffalo boondoggle has generated indictments and scandal (along with some good local press clippings for the governor), but precious little lasting economic development; whether Brooklyn (and the taxpayers) will fare better remains to be seen.
Meantime, multiple probes by Bharara and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance have left New York City’s political establishment mostly unfazed. The investigations largely revolved around the alleged use of public money to achieve goals sought by outsiders with special interests—including the city teachers’ union. But far from being chastened by the likelihood of further scandal—to say nothing of the possibility of getting drawn directly into the case as material witnesses or even indictees—most of the special interests are standing behind Mayor de Blasio’s ongoing reelection effort. Foremost among them: the United Federation of Teachers. The message could not be clearer: no matter what the Bharara-Vance probes yield, business in New York City will continue as usual.
In the end, all this has much more to do with the people of New York than it does with the commitment and the accomplishments of a particularly talented federal prosecutor. The law book hasn’t been written that can overcome the complacency of a public that accepts endemic corruption as natural. Whether Bharara now means to approach the problem from a different angle—through the ballot box, as a political candidate—is an obvious question. Certainly, he’s been hinting at it for some time. And if that’s the way he intends to go, good for him. If anybody knows where the bodies are buried—metaphorically speaking, of course—it’s the now-former U.S. attorney.
But if Bharara decides that enough is enough, that’s okay, too. The real failure resides with New York, not with Preet Bharara. He did his bit and did it well.
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