Preet Bharara Skewers Bill de Blasio and Praises the Press at Political Gala

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara speaks at City & State's 10th anniversary gala in Midtown.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara speaks at City & State’s 10th anniversary gala in Midtown. Madina Toure/Observer

It seems that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s recent slapping of federal charges on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s closest associates in an alleged bid-rigging scheme has emboldened him to take jabs at just about everyone—right up to Mayor Bill de Blasio and his infamous affinity for traveling all the way to his old neighborhood of Park Slope to exercise at the YMCA during working hours.

Bharara was honored as “Newsmaker of the Decade” by City & State and served as keynote speaker at its 10th anniversary gala tonight at Vermilion Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. And he certainly took advantage of his reputation for being tough on corruption—as soon as he started his speech, he told the audience, “I’ll rescue you” and then said that those who clapped “will be arrested last.”  

“It is sometimes nice to be able to put actual faces to the names in all those wiretap applications and you’re all much better looking than you look in those wiretap applications,” he said.

Bharara’s office recently charged Alain Kaloyeros, former president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, with allegedly shaping requests-for-proposals for the Buffalo Billion program to ensure contracts would be won by donors to the governor’s campaign. He also Joseph Percoco, Cuomo’s former executive deputy secretary and righthand man, with taking a bribe to get the Empire State Development Corporation to pay a company for the construction of a parking lot in Syracuse despite the lack of labor agreements.

Bharara also accused the Cuomo confidante of accepting personal payments from a Maryland-based energy company to allow for the construction of a power plant in upstate New York. The governor responded last week by announcing  he would transfer the management of Buffalo Billion from SUNY Polytechnic to the Empire State Development Corporation—both entities wholly under his control.

The federal prosecutor didn’t reference the case against Cuomo’s top lieutenants, but instead poked fun at another target of his recent investigations: de Blasio, who faces federal probes into his police department and defunct political nonprofits.

Bharara tweaked the mayor’s fondness for traveling 12 miles from his Gracie Mansion home to the Park Slope YMCA—a subject he hates to talk about—and his preference for eating pizza with utensils—known jokingly as “Forkgate.” He praised City & State for choosing Vermilion Restaurant as a venue, saying that he understood it to be “Indian fusion” which resonated well with him because “I’m kind of Indian fusion myself”—but he said de Blasio would prefer the gym if it were an event for him.

“If it had been Mayor de Blasio, we’d all be eating at the Park Slope YMCA,” Bharara said, as attendees shouted “Ooh!” and laughed raucously, “and we’d eat pizza with a knife and fork. It’s just jokes.”

He also referenced the son of disgraced former Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, Adam Skelos, who was caught on wiretaps physically threatening people over business deals: “It’s like effing Preet Bharara is listening to every effing phone call,” Bharara imitated Skelos as saying, adding, “including that one.”

He referenced the arrest of a mid-level diplomat who his office accused based on referral from the State Department of not paying proper wages to domestic workers. He said people called him “Uncle Tom,” saying that he decided to prosecute “someone of his own background and culture to prove himself to his white masters.”

“Presumably, [former Attorney General] Eric Holder and Barack Obama,” he said.

Bharara told the audience at the gala that he was perplexed as to why no one asked him at the press conference where he announced the charges how his office started the investigation in the first place.

“That case got started because journalists in Buffalo and elsewhere started to write that there were shenanigans they believe that were going on with the bidding of contracts in Buffalo,” Bharara said. “And you know what we did? We started to investigate.”

“A lot of the greatest work that prosecutors and watchdogs do comes from the work that journalists do and I would encourage anyone who’s able to fund investigative journalism to spend money on it because it’s money well-spent and it’s good for the cause,” he added.

Other speakers could not restrain themselves from capitalizing on the negative press Cuomo has gotten from the bid-rigging scheme. 

Though he did not name any elected officials, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli—who has clashed with Cuomo over the effectiveness of his economic development programs, with Cuomo dismissing DiNapoli’s audits as opinions—was seemingly weighing in on the matter by calling for prioritizing the interest of the public over that of politicians. 

“We’re going to continue to partner with those in government who like everyone here wants to see New York State, New York City be a place of credibility, integrity, ethics and serving the public’s interest, not the individual interest of any elected official,” DiNapoli said. 

Former Gov. David Paterson also garnered applause and laughter from the audience. “There are a number of you I’ve seen, Comptroller DiNapoli, Speaker Mark-Viverito,” Paterson said. “I don’t remember all the people so I asked my good friend U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to write down the names of the people I should mention. I have them here. It says ‘subpoena.’ Oh no,” to roaring laughter.    

Paterson also took advantage of the atmosphere to downplay a scandal in 2010 in which he was fined $62,125 after he sought and accepted free tickets from the New York Yankees to the 2009 World Series. 

“And in conclusion, I would say that I was asked by some of the reporters about these corruption scandals in Albany, leaders of the legislature, lobbyists, executive staff,” Paterson said. “They asked me what did I think about it? I think next to what they did, my Yankee tickets are looking pretty good,” which garnered roaring laughter.

Preet Bharara Skewers Bill de Blasio and Praises the Press at Political Gala