Bharara’s Grand Ambition

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Arrested On Corruption Charges
Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York speaks at a press conference following the arrest of the speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, on federal corruption charges on January 22, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There seems to be no question that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara wants to accomplish what the last several New York governors have promised but failed to do: rid Albany of its well-earned reputation as a place where ethics go to die.

After securing the indictment of longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, regarded by many as a symbol of Albany’s slippery ethics, Mr. Bharara apparently has turned his attention to the private dealings of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Long Island. Recent reports indicate that the prosecutor is looking into business relationships involving both Mr. Skelos and his son.

If Mr. Skelos is indicted, Mr. Bharara will have gone a long way toward upending the power nexus in Albany. Just a few months ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo playfully referred to himself, Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos as the “three amigos”—the three men who, as tradition dictated, would lock themselves in a room to negotiate the state’s budget. Everybody got a good laugh. The next day, one of those amigos, Mr. Silver, was arrested. And now Mr. Skelos seems perilously close to an unwanted appearance in a court of law. Nobody is laughing now.

If swashbuckling U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara comports himself like others who have tried to indict their way to fame and public office, he will come off like a self-righteous bully.

Mr. Bharara has not been shy about voicing his contempt for Albany’s dreadful political culture. In fact, his withering comments in the aftermath of Mr. Silver’s arrest earned him a rebuke from a federal judge, who complained that the prosecutor had “appeared to bundle together unproven allegations regarding [Mr. Silver] with broader commentary on corruption and a lack of transparency in certain aspects of New York State politics.”

In other words, shut up already!

Mr. Bharara should take the judge’s words to heart. There’s no question that he is onto something, and that he is providing a valuable public service in exposing Albany’s crooked culture. But if he comports himself like others who have tried to indict their way to fame and public office, he will come off like a self-righteous bully.

Forty years ago, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed a special prosecutor named Maurice Nadjari to clean up corruption in the criminal justice system and the Police Department. He indicted everything except a ham sandwich, but when the storm was over, most of the cases were thrown out of court. One judge asserted that Nadjari “was guilty of constant and patent disregard of the basic rules of evidence.”

Mr. Bharara is smarter and shrewder than Nadjari, but as he digs deeper into the sewer that is state politics, he does need to control his sense of outrage. Granted, it’s not easy to do, given his chosen line of work, but it is a necessity.

Mr. Bharara may be on the verge of transforming how Albany goes about its business. But achieving that goal requires good, sound legal work—not high-profile press conferences.

He needs to make airtight cases and present them to juries. The fewer press conferences the better. Bharara’s Grand Ambition