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US attorney who shunned politics meets an end tinged by them

Ten days into his tenure as U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara saw his political and prosecutorial worlds collide.

He convened a meeting to discuss a sensitive investigation of a Democratic donor with ties to Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. Bharara had been Schumer’s chief counsel, and Schumer had recommended Bharara for the prosecutorial post.

At the meeting, Bharara asked his prosecutors if there was enough evidence to make a case against the donor, Hassan Nemazee. One of the prosecutors, Daniel W. Levy, who is now in private practice, would recall years later that he had told Bharara that there had been a wide-reaching bank fraud.

“Then take him,” Bharara said.

That case — one of his very first as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan — foreshadowed a theme that Bharara harped on throughout his tenure pursuing a host of public corruption, terrorism, civil rights and Wall Street cases: Politics and prosecution do not mix.

Yet now, more than seven years after taking office, Bharara, 48, finds himself on what appears to be the losing end of a quintessential political decision.

On Saturday, the Trump administration fired him after he refused to follow a Justice Department order to resign immediately. The order, which was issued Friday and also applied to 45 other holdover U.S. attorneys who served under the Obama administration, came only a few months after Donald Trump, then the president-elect, had asked Bharara to stay in the job.

“One hallmark of justice is absolute independence, and that was my touchstone every day that I served,” Bharara said in a statement on Saturday.

It was a sudden and highly politicized end to Bharara’s seemingly apolitical tenure, which was noted for prosecutions of powerful politicians of both parties, like Sheldon Silver, the former Democratic State Assembly speaker, and Dean G. Skelos, the former Republican majority leader of the State Senate. (Both men have appealed.)

As he leaves office, Bharara’s prosecutors are reaching a critical juncture in a yearlong investigation into the campaign fundraising of Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and are preparing to try a group of former aides and associates of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a bribery and bid-rigging case.

Bharara’s dismissal will renew speculation about his plans for a postprosecutorial career. Although he has repeatedly denied political ambitions — “I have no interest and desire to seek political office,” he told The New York Times in a 2014 interview, adding, “Now or ever” — his confrontation with Trump could fuel talk that his political star is rising.

Still, Bharara had his critics, who accused him both of overreach — his office dismissed several high-profile insider trading cases after an appellate-court rebuke — and, at times, an unwillingness to be forceful enough. He never filed charges, for example, against two targets of prominent investigations, Cuomo and hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen, who have each long denied wrongdoing. Nor did he charge any top bankers linked to the 2008 financial crisis.

And his embrace of the media spotlight sometimes struck the wrong chord with defense lawyers and judges.

The judge in Silver’s case, Valerie E. Caproni, found in 2015 that Bharara’s office had orchestrated a “media blitz” after the speaker’s arrest. Although she refused a defense request to dismiss charges, the judge added, “The U.S. attorney, while castigating politicians in Albany for playing fast and loose with the ethical rules that govern their conduct, strayed so close to the edge of the rules governing his own conduct that defendant Sheldon Silver has a nonfrivolous argument that he fell over the edge to the defendant’s prejudice.”

Regardless, there is little doubt Bharara’s legacy will largely center on his prosecution of public officials.

“We are not trying to criminalize ordinary politics,” Bharara said in a speech at New York Law School in 2015. Nor, he said, were his prosecutors seeking to wag their fingers, serve as “morality cops” or demand that officials be free of vice. “Just try not to steal our money,” he said. “We simply want people in high office to stop violating the law. It seems like a simple and modest request.”

By the time his public corruption unit had won the convictions of Silver and Skelos, Bharara had successfully prosecuted a dozen current or former state legislators, as well as 15 local officials, party leaders, political consultants and fundraisers, including two current or former New York City Council members. Only one was acquitted.

Not all of Bharara’s public corruption inquiries led to criminal charges, most notably his sweeping examination of Cuomo’s abrupt shutdown in March 2014 of an anti-corruption commission that the governor had formed with great fanfare just nine months earlier. A Times investigation published in July 2014 showed that before disbanding the panel, known as the Moreland Commission, Cuomo had hobbled its work, intervening when it focused on groups with ties to the governor or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.

But after an investigation that spanned more than a year, Bharara said in January 2016 that his office had concluded that “absent any additional proof that may develop, there is insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime.”

Yet the Moreland Commission was clearly not far from Bharara’s mind. On Sunday afternoon, he used a recently opened personal Twitter account to say, “By the way, now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like.”

Bharara’s investigation clearly stuck with Cuomo as well. In the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration, Cuomo, who has done little to hide his frustration with Bharara, told a Trump adviser in passing that the prosecutor was “a bad guy,” saying, “Preet is not your friend,” according to a person familiar with the discussion. (A Cuomo spokeswoman denied that the governor had made such a statement.)

Bharara broadened the office’s global reach, prosecuting international terrorists, drug lords and money launderers. What might have been the biggest case got away in 2010 when the Obama administration dropped plans to bring five Guantánamo Bay detainees, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, to Manhattan for a civilian trial on charges of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks.

But Bharara’s prosecutors won major convictions against terrorists like Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and one of his spokesmen; Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantánamo detainee to be tried in the civilian system; and Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant who in 2010 tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. All three men received life sentences.

In October, the office is scheduled to try Ahmad Khan Rahimi on charges stemming from a bombing in September that injured more than 30 people in Manhattan. He has pleaded not guilty.

In the white-collar realm, Bharara may be best remembered for his sweeping crackdown on insider trading in the hedge-fund industry. The two most notable convictions growing out of a long-running investigation that began even before he took office were of Raj Rajaratnam, a hedge-fund billionaire, and Rajat Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs director and McKinsey managing partner who was convicted of passing an inside tip on to Rajaratnam.

Bharara also secured a guilty plea against SAC Capital, the hugely successful hedge fund founded by Cohen. But Bharara’s office never was able to file criminal charges against Cohen, who has gone on to run a large family office called Point72 Asset Management that manages more than $10 billion of his personal fortune.

Bharara’s office secured convictions or guilty pleas against more than 70 hedge-fund traders, analysts and consultants in insider trading cases. But he suffered a blow when a federal appellate court said his office had overreached and threw out the convictions of two former traders, Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson. The appellate ruling led Bharara to vacate guilty pleas and convictions of at least seven other people. (The Supreme Court later limited a portion of the appellate decision, offering some vindication for Bharara.)

Gregory Morvillo, Chiasson’s lawyer, said Bharara had “left his mark on Wall Street” but had “sometimes pushed the envelope too far.”

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