President fires key New York guardian

Preet Bharara (Official photo)

Anyone concerned with corruption in New York state government can’t be happy that President Donald Trump fired Preet Bharara last week as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

For all of the talk about ethics reform emanating from the state capitol over the past several years, it was Bharara — not any law or regulation approved by the state Legislature or signed by the governor — who put the most heat on wrongdoers like Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos in Albany. Bharara has in recent years gone after over a dozen state officeholders, and his office is currently prosecuting former associates of Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a bribery case. Also, prosecutors recently interviewed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as part of a probe into his fundraising.

As soon as Bharara was gone, his former office dropped the case against de Blasio.

Gov. Cuomo in January talked a good game about ethics reform, as he seems to do every year, but he has not followed that up with any solid proposals. With Bharara gone, hope dwindles that he or anyone else will.

It’s customary for the 93 U.S. attorneys to leave their posts when a new president takes office, and the president is well within his right to appoint his own slate of U.S. attorneys. He initially let half of them go, and now he’s doing the same with the other half.

What made Bharara’s case surprising was that he had been asked to stay on, at least temporarily, following a meeting with then-President-elect Trump in November. Bharara was still leading his staff in cases against Silver and Skelos while other investigations continued.

When Trump asked Bharara to resign this month, Bharara declined, saying he is in the middle of important cases. He knew that by doing so he was asking to be fired, and he was.

He also made an important point. He really was leading his office in essential work that no other leader was doing, work which the people of not just New York but the world desperately need done: that is, ferreting out government corruption, corporate lawbreaking, drug dealing and other crimes. Sure, others can lead a team of prosecutors, but Bharara’s independence shone like a beacon. He shunned partisan politics and insists he does not want a future career in elected office (unlike, for instance, every New York attorney general in recent memory). He prosecuted cases evenly among Republicans, Democrats and their respective friends. Although he had previously worked for Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who recommended him for U.S. attorney, 10 days into the job he launched a case against one of Schumer’s donors. Staff had enough evidence, and that was that.

There are surely other people with the mettle and qualifications to do what Bharara did, but is that what Trump really wants?

If so, he had better step up his game quickly. Otherwise, those inclined to government corruption and white-collar crime will see Bharara’s firing as a signal that the supposed “law and order” president is easy on such things.

President Trump said he wanted to drain the swamp in Washington. Right now, it appears he fired the one person capable of draining the swamp in Albany.