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Illustration of Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Preet Bharara: The man who strikes fear into Wall Street Add to ...

He has a modest suggestion. Employers should make it a habit to say, “One thing you should know about this place is we do not cheat, we do not steal, and if you do, you’re going to be out on your behind,” Mr. Bharara says. Too many companies, he says, eschew such statements of principle in favour of “fancy legal mumbo jumbo.”

Warming to his theme, he adds: “Very basic things that people learn in their own families about what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s good and what’s not” also apply in a corporate setting. But instead, some businesses consider such messages “too simplistic, and I don’t think it ever is.”

He stops abruptly, as if he has somehow revealed too much, and changes the topic. “What does it take to get another Diet Coke around here?” he asks, peering around for our server, who has vanished.

The exchange brings to mind a description of Mr. Bharara courtesy of one of his friends, who told me that in matters of character, he was “straight as a Nevada highway.”

Although his default mode is prosecutorial tough talk, he is equally at home with witty self-effacement. He credits his mother with orchestrating his coverage in the press (“She gets to everybody,” he quips). And he claims any effectiveness as a manager – he oversees an office of 230 prosecutors – is due entirely to the fridge he keeps stocked with his preferred caffeinated beverage. On occasion, he has substituted a case of Diet Mountain Dew, he admits, wondering aloud whether that makes him look unhip.

Keeping a sense of humour is one way Mr. Bharara alleviates the daily pressure of what is a deadly serious business. As the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mr. Bharara’s job is to prosecute cases involving violations of federal law. That means pursuing not just crooked traders and cybercriminals but also Mafia dons, gang leaders and terrorists. Mr. Bharara’s office locked up Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, and Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer.

Caution comes with the territory. In conversation, Mr. Bharara is amiable but also careful not to share too much. He is wary of putting details about his family into the public realm, a kind of circumspection that is understandable for any high-profile prosecutor.

Mr. Bharara’s own story is remarkable enough. Born in the Indian state of Punjab – his full name is Preetinder – Mr. Bharara arrived in the United States at the age of two. His family lived briefly in Buffalo, where they developed an enduring affection for both sides of Niagara Falls, before settling in New Jersey.

His father, whom Mr. Bharara has called a “Tiger Dad,” pushed both of his sons to excel. Mr. Bharara attended Harvard and then Columbia Law School. His younger brother Vinit is no slouch: Trained as a lawyer, he became an entrepreneur, and in 2011, the e-commerce company he co-founded was sold to Amazon.com for $540-million (U.S.).

Meanwhile, Mr. Bharara wasted little time climbing the legal ladder. In 2005, he moved to Washington to become chief counsel for Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat.

In the capital, Mr. Bharara won praise for his even-handed approach in a highly sensitive congressional investigation, but the hyperpartisan atmosphere left him cold.

One day, he remembers, he was heading to lunch with someone. The person asked him whether a rumour was true: that Mr. Bharara, a Democrat, was friends with Viet Dinh, a Republican formerly in a senior position in the U.S. Justice Department. “Yes,” Mr. Bharara replied, “I was the best man at his wedding.” The person Mr. Bharara was talking to “actually physically recoiled,” he recalls. “I never forgot that.”

There is feverish speculation about Mr. Bharara’s next move. “People are pushing him to do a lot of things,” says Mr. Dinh, who remains his best friend. Previous occupants of Mr. Bharara’s job, like Rudy Giuliani, have gone on to run for office. Others have pursued a lucrative career in private practice or moved into senior positions in the Justice Department.

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