NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, known for crusading against public corruption, was forced out of office, the federal prosecutor tweeted out Saturday afternoon.
The Manhattan U.S. attorney built a reputation as a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners prosecutor. As CBS2’s political correspondent Marcia Kramer reported, Bharara never blinked in the pursuit of Wall Street titans, terrorists and dirty politicians of every stripe.
A person with knowledge of Bharara’s actions said earlier Saturday he would not comply with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ request to resign along with other prosecutors appointed by former President Barack Obama.
“I did not resign,” the federal prosecutor said. “Moments ago I was fired.”
He said serving as the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York will “forever be the greatest honor of my professional life.”
In a statement sent to CBS2, Bharara said Joon H. Kim, his Deputy U.S. Attorney, will serve as acting U.S. Attorney.
“One hallmark of justice is absolute independence, and that was my touchstone every day that I served,” the statement continued. I want to thank the amazing people of the Southern District of New York, the greatest public servants in the world, for everything they do each day in pursuit of justice.”
The 48-year-old Bharara was asked by then-President-elect President Donald Trump to remain as U.S. attorney in Manhattan during a November meeting at Trump Tower.
“We had a good meeting,” Bharara said in November. “I agreed to stay on.”
But sources tell CBS2 that Trump, frustrated by leaks that he believed were hurting his administration, decided to get rid of the 46 holdover U.S. attorneys from around the country who were appointed by former President Barack Obama. That included Bharara, even with his hard-won reputation for independence.
“Today’s complaint shines a light on yet another sordid side of the show-me-the-money culture that has so plagued Albany,” the prosecutor once said, announcing the indictment of a top Gov. Andrew Cuomo aide, Joseph Percoco, a Democrat — but political parties never played a role in who Bharara targeted, Kramer reported.
Among the notches in his belt: Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, Queens City Councilman Daniel Halloran, a Republican, former Senate Majority Leader Malcom Smith, a Democrat.
Bharara’s departure leaves a lot of unfinished business, including the high-profile pay-to-play investigation of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his aides. The probe appeared to be in its final stages after de Blasio was interviewed two weeks ago for more than four hours.
Bharara gave no clue about what the next chapter will hold. There has been much speculation that he will seek political office one day, Kramer reported, but as he is fond of saying and tweeting: stay tuned.
In a statement sent out shortly after the announcement, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Bharara “served with honor and distinction.”
“His integrity, tenacity, and commitment to rooting out wrongdoing — whether in the boardroom, the halls of government, or anywhere else — will sorely be missed,” Schneiderman continued. “President Trump’s abrupt and unexplained decision to summarily remove over 40 U.S. Attorneys has once again caused chaos in the federal government and led to questions about whether the Justice Department’s vital and non-partisan work will continue under Attorney General Sessions, as it must.”
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) called on the Trump administration to rethink their decision.
“He’s been an outstanding public servant,” she told WCBS 880’s Myles Miller. “He’s really restored a lot of faith in government.”
In a statement sent late Friday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was “troubled to learn of reports of requests for resignations from the remaining U.S. attorneys, particularly that of Preet Bharara.”
“While it’s true that presidents from both parties made their own choices for U.S. attorney positions across the country, they have always done so in an orderly fashion that doesn’t put ongoing investigations at risk. They ask for letters of resignation but the attorneys are allowed to stay on the job until their successor is confirmed,” the senator said.
Once it was official, Schumer sent another statement Saturday, calling Bharara an “exemplary” U.S. attorney.
“York. His relentless drive to root out public corruption, lock up terrorists, take on Wall Street, and stand up for what is right should serve as a model for all U.S. attorneys across the country,” the senator said. “He will be sorely missed.”
New York State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, who’s a former federal prosecutor, issued a statement, calling Bharara a “crusader in the fight against political corruption.”
“Playing politics with the Justice Department should scare all of us, and it is impossible to square the abrupt firing of corruption fighters like Bharara with wanting to ‘drain the swamp,'” the statement continued.
Jennifer Rodgers, who worked in the U.S. attorney’s office with Bharara and now heads Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, told 1010 WINS’ Samantha Liebman the president was well within his rights to fire him, but she found it strange given their meeting in November.
“It’s kind of an unprecedented set of facts too, given the conversation that Preet had with the president after the election where he was asked to stay,” she said.
Rodgers said Bharara’s work will go on, including probes into the mayor’s fundraising and the case against an aide to Cuomo.
“Those cases will continue. They are being conducted by career prosecutors in the office and they certainly will keep going as they have,” she said.
Carrie Cohen, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District, also worked with Bharara for seven years on corruption cases. She said it doesn’t make any sense to fire a prosecutor who’s committed to the ideals of doing justice and seeking the truth, WCBS 880’s Mike Smeltz reported.
“Unless there’s some reason the administration is not committed to those same ideals,” she told Smeltz.
With a quick wit and a steady stream of public appearances, Bharara has been one of the more charismatic prosecutors to lead one of the busiest offices of federal prosecutors in the country.
The prosecutor was once lauded on the cover of Time magazine as the man who is “busting Wall Street.” More recently, he’s successfully prosecuted over a dozen state officeholders.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Robert Capers tendered his resignation Friday evening, saying, “It has been my greatest honor to serve my country, New York City and the people of this district for almost 14 years, with the last 17 months serving as United States Attorney.”
Connecticut’s U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly also submitted her resignation, saying, “It has been a great honor and privilege to serve as Connecticut’s United States Attorney. In fact, it has been a gift of a lifetime.”
A short time later, New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman tendered his resignation as well.
“It has been the greatest professional experience that I can possibly imagine to have served in this office for the past seven-and-a-half years. Having spent so much of my career working to protect the interests of the people of New Jersey, I can think of no greater form of public service,” he said in a statement.
Many of the federal prosecutors who were nominated by President Barack Obama had already left their positions, but the nearly four dozen who stayed on in the first weeks of the Trump administration have been asked to leave “in order to ensure a uniform transition,” Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Friday.
“Until the new U.S. attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our U.S. attorney’s offices will continue the great work of the department in investigating, prosecuting and deterring the most violent offenders,” she said in a statement.
It’s fairly customary for the 93 U.S. attorneys to leave their positions after a new president is in office, but the departures are not automatic and don’t necessarily happen all at once.
One U.S. attorney appointed by President George W. Bush, Rod Rosenstein of Maryland, remained on the job for the entire Obama administration and is the current nominee for deputy attorney general in the Trump administration.
A Justice Department spokesman, Peter Carr, said President Donald Trump has asked Rosenstein and Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who has served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to stay on.
The action was similar to one taken in 1993 by Attorney General Janet Reno, who soon after taking office in the Clinton administration sought the resignations of the U.S. attorneys appointed by President George H.W. Bush. At the time, Sessions was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.
Tim Purdon, a former U.S. attorney for North Dakota in the Obama administration, recalled that President Barack Obama permitted Bush appointees to remain on until their successors had been appointed and confirmed.
“The way the Obama administration handled it was appropriate and respectful and classy,” he said. “This saddens me because many of these people are great public servants and now they are being asked to leave.”
U.S. attorneys are federal prosecutors who are nominated by the president, generally upon the recommendation of a home-state senator, and are responsible for prosecuting federal crimes in the territories they oversee. They report to Justice Department leadership in Washington, and their priorities are expected to be in line with those of the attorney general.
Sessions took perhaps a veiled swipe at their work in a memo earlier this week, saying that prosecutions for violent crime have been on the decline even as the number of murders has gone up. The demand for resignations seems a way to ensure he will have a team of new federal prosecutors more likely to share his agenda.
Friday’s announcement came months after Bharara, one of the country’s most prominent federal prosecutors, said he’d been asked by Trump to stay on and that he intended to.
Montana’s U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said he received a phone call from Boente telling him “the president has directed this.”
“I think it’s very unprofessional and I’m very disappointed,” he said. “What happened today on Friday, March 10, that was so important that all Obama appointees who are US attorneys need to be gone?”
“I gotta write that (resignation) letter. It’s going to be a one-liner,” he added.
The Justice Department declined comment Saturday.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)