US attorney faces criticism for prosecuting Indian diplomat

US Attorney Preet Bharara dodges barbs from India, his native homeland, including an accusation that he prosecuted an Indian diplomat 'to serve his white masters.'

Richard Drew/AP
Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks at a May 19 news conference in New York. Mr. Bharara's prosecution of an Indian diplomat has drawn scorn in his birthplace, with one commentator even questioning if he took up the case “to serve his white masters.”

US Attorney Preet Bharara has made the cover of Time magazine and won praise for tough talk about corruption on Wall Street. But his prosecution of an Indian diplomat has drawn scorn from his birthplace, with one commentator in India even questioning if he took up the case "to serve his white masters."

For the most part, Mr. Bharara has chosen not to speak about the cultural and racial undercurrents that lurk in high-profile cases his office – the country's largest – has brought against South Asian defendants. That changed at a recent speech at Harvard Law School, where he cited the criticism and countered it with unusual candor.

The so-called white masters are "presumably, Eric Holder and Barack Obama," Bharara quipped.

But the prosecutor – who said he's been criticized by the left and the right, by various governments and has been banned from Russia – also conceded that the uninvited scrutiny about the arrest of a mid-level diplomat on charges she underpaid a domestic worker brought pain too. He told the crowd he only personally learned of the case that caused what he described as "an international incident" a day or two before the December arrest. Soon afterward, she was permitted to return to India, though charges remain.

The criticism was like nothing that had ever fallen upon a Manhattan prosecutor. Rudy Giuliani 's Italian-American background drew no special attention from Italy as his office arrested scores of defendants in organized crime cases. Giuliani seemed to enjoy the prosecutions, even playing a "Godfather" in an annual press show when he was mayor. Bharara's treatment got personal.

"Talk show hosts in India took to calling me a self-loathing Indian who made it a point to go after people from the country of his birth. Which was a bit odd, since the alleged victim in the case was also Indian," he recalled. "An Indian official basically asked on television, 'Who the hell is Preet Bharara?'"

Preetinder Bharara was born in Ferozepur, India, in 1968. His family moved to the US when he was 2, and he was raised along the New Jersey shore in Monmouth County.

After graduating from Harvard in 1990 and Columbia Law School in 1993, he worked in private practice until 2000, when he became an assistant US attorney in Manhattan. Five years later, he became U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer's chief counsel, and helped lead the investigation into the firings of nine US attorneys under President George W. Bush.

After his 2009 appointment by Obama as US attorney in Manhattan, he presided over one of the largest roundups in history of Wall Street professionals, using hundreds of hours of wiretaps that resulted in more than 80 convictions. His office also led the continuing probe of the collapse of Bernard Madoff's multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, and the prosecution of the Times Square bomber and several high-profile terrorism defendants.

But his prosecution of some fellow highly successful South Asians strained perceptions of him in his birthplace even before the diplomat's arrest. Three years ago, his office successfully prosecuted Raj Rajaratnam, of Sri Lanka, along with some of Rajaratnam's Indian-born friends from college. Rajaratnam, serving an 11-year prison term for insider trading, became a billionaire after creating the Galleon Group of hedge funds that once handled as much as $7 billion. His brother is currently on trial on insider trading charges.

Bharara also has prosecuted several highly successful Indian-born defendants, the most prominent of which is Rajat Gupta, the former Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble board member who rose to the peak of American finance before he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison on insider trading charges

The uproar over the arrest of India's deputy consul general in New York turned whispers about his motivations into shouts.

"Is Bharara targeting Indians?" was the question posed by an article on India Today's website in December. Editor-in-Chief R. Jagannathan wrote in a December column that the United States "will use a Preet Bharara to target Khobragade (or Rajat Gupta or Raj Rajaratnam) so that it looks like Indian-Americans are implementing the law, and hence not racist." He finished the column with: "At the very least, we should target Preet Bharara for humiliating an Indian diplomat and make sure he never enters this country again."

Columbia Law Professor John C. Coffee Jr. said the US separation of powers is unique.

"I don't think that foreign countries, foreign nationals, foreign defendants, quite understand how independent and separated the Department of Justice and particularly US attorneys are," he said. "Usually a government controls everything."

On Friday, Bharara declined to talk about the issue to The Associated Press.

But in his Harvard speech, Bharara said the criticism "might not have bothered me so much had my parents not been reading every word of it."

"I had to explain to my daughter, who overheard a conversation in the house, what it meant to be called an Uncle Tom because that's what I was being called by journalists in South Asia. So that was not pleasant," he said.

Bharara said he eventually recovered perspective as the accusations got increasingly absurd, even "downright comical."

"After all, Indian critics were angry because even though I hailed from India, I appeared to be going out of my way to act American and serve the interests of America. Which was a bit odd, because I am American and the words 'United States' are actually in my title," he said.

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