Preet Bharara Says He’ll Spur Improvement of Political System That Has ‘Broken Down’

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images) (Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images)

In yet another public appearance for the swaggering prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declared today that his corruption investigations would spur the improvement of a political system that he said had “broken down.”

Mr. Bharara, delivering the keynote address at a Regional Plan Association convention in Manhattan, said his many Albany investigations would force a calcified government to adopt reform–arguing his office’s successful prosecutions even led to the end of member items in state government.

“Prosecution of crime generally is not just an end of itself,” Mr. Bharara told a packed ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria “The point is not just to punish a politician that has broken the law but to help spur the improvement of a political system that has broken down.”

He added: “The problem of corruption in New York is systemic and not merely episodic.”

Mr. Bharara’s office is reportedly investigating State Senator Dean Skelos, the Republican majority leader, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shuttering of an anti-corruption commission. He indicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver earlier this year on corruption charges, forcing him to step down from his powerful post. A sprawling federal investigation into a bribery scheme hatched during the 2013 mayoral race led to the successful prosecutions of Malcolm Smith, a former state senate majority leader, and Dan Halloran, a former Republican city councilman.

But Mr. Bharara, who once warned other state lawmakers to “stay tuned” to more investigations, has been criticized by some legal observers and even judges for his frequent public commentaries. Critics say Mr. Bharara, as a federal prosecutor, should not be opining on public policy–a fellow U.S. attorney, Loretta Lynch, successfully prosecuted elected officials but shunned the speaking circuit. (Ms. Lynch was confirmed yesterday as the new U.S. attorney general, a post Mr. Bharara was reportedly interested in seeking.)

Mr. Bharara again defended himself today, arguing to the crowd that raising the public’s awareness of corruption is part of his job.

“So whether it’s gang violence or cyber crime or national security or drug trafficking or a prescription pill epidemic or fraud on Wall Street, it’s fundamentally important to talk about those issues so that … we are not just focusing on prosecuting crime but also preventing and deterring and raising public awareness is a central part of that responsibility,” he said.

In order to transform a corrupt political culture, “there needs to be public awareness,” Mr. Bharara continued. “Without public awareness, there is no focus. Without public awareness, there is no resolve. Without public awareness, things tend to never change.”

His crusade to “clean up government” is particularly essential because Albany has so much power over local municipalities, including New York City, he contended. With less federal help than there used to be, a more honest, efficient and incorruptible state government is needed more than ever, Mr. Bharara said.

“What happens in Albany is important, what transpires there is important. Even state legislators, believe it or not, are important,” he said to some laughter. “We need a state government that is willing to and capable of tackling the pressing public policy challenges of our time.”

Mr. Bharara was not shy about touting the political scalps he’s racked up. Using the example of his office winning a corruption conviction of former Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, Mr. Bharara said he began to question just how much legislation had been for sale in Albany.

“How many past bills were born of bribery?” he asked.

This story has been updated to reflect that Mr. Bharara is investigating Mr. Cuomo’s handling of an anti-corruption commission, not Mr. Cuomo himself.