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DINOSAURS IN DISTRESS

- Bharara is set to scale bigger heights in American public life

The presumption last week was that Satya Nadella would be the man of the week, so to speak, when he formally became the third chief executive of Microsoft even though the appointment had been expected for some time. But on the streets of New York it was another Indian American who was the popular hero, an unlikely choice for many Indians who have loved to hate him, especially in the last three months. That hero was Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of New York.

For many Americans, Bharara is a crusader in the image of medieval knights in shining armour who mostly rode on horses and rescued damsels in distress. If there had been doubts that Bharara’s role in the indictment, arrest and whatever else that went somewhat wrong in the Devyani Khobragade episode had dented the feisty prosecutor’s reputation and halted his rise to greater heights in the United States of America’s public life in the years to come, those doubts were conclusively set at rest last week.

Instead, Bharara went up several notches in public esteem in New York and elsewhere, when he secured on Thursday the conviction of another Indian American by a jury of seven women and five men in a New York court. Mathew Martoma’s was no ordinary conviction either. It was a case of the most lucrative insider-trading crime ever committed on American soil. The case had all the ingredients of a conventional potboiler: a typical immigrant-American success story, mysterious shadows of misdemeanour in Ivy-League Harvard, an intriguing name change by the hero, his attractive young wife and, of course, loads of money.

The Martoma case caught the public imagination also because most Americans now view stockbrokers and bankers as a tribe that has fattened itself on greed at the expense of ordinary people. The financial meltdown of 2008 has ensured that the reputation of this tribe is now worse than that of newshounds with cameras and microphones, out to create stories from tragedies or scandals that have little to do with public interest or the greater good, unlike the Watergate or My Lai exposés of a time past, when journalism in the US had built a formidable reputation.

Bharara — who was appointed by president Barack Obama in 2009 to one of the most important judicial posts in America, because of New York south district’s jurisdiction over the world’s financial capital and its stock market — now has 79 convictions similar to Martoma’s under his belt in little over four years. He flaunts those as examples to demonstrate that financial greed, which has cost Americans dearly, will not pay any more.

Bharara’s statement after the verdict in the Martoma case was typical of that sentiment that resonates with the man on American streets. “In the short run, cheating may have been profitable for Martoma, but in the end, it made him a convicted felon, and likely will result in the forfeiture of his illegal windfall and the loss of his liberty.” His carefully crafted statement said, “Martoma bought the answer sheet before the exam — more than once — netting a quarter billion dollars in profits and losses avoided for SAC, as well as a nine million dollar bonus for him.” That was an indirect and snide reference to the Harvard episode in Martoma’s life, when he fiddled with his academic records in law school. Bharara made the point that “Mathew Martoma becomes the 79th person convicted of insider trading after trial or by guilty plea in this district in the last four years”.

Most Indians who criticize Bharara have no idea of what a powerful judicial machine he already presides over at the relatively young age of 46 owing to the position he holds. He has a formidable army of over 220 assistant US attorneys under his direct supervision. And they handle precisely those crimes that the American public imagination takes a fancy to at this time. In addition to white-collar crime like Martoma’s, these attorneys under Bharara’s leadership tackle crimes that include domestic and international terrorism, narcotics and arms trafficking, corruption in public life, gang violence, organized crime, and civil-rights violations.

Last week, Bharara’s already formidable reputation crossed the Atlantic and beyond when his activities brought forth a spectacular recovery of World-War-II-era, Nazi-plundered art far outside America’s borders. His office, along with the US immigration and customs enforcement’s homeland security investigations division, located a painting by Johann Conrad Seekatz, titled St Philip Baptizing a Servant of Queen Kandaki, which was stolen from the National Museum of the City of Warsaw by the Nazis. The painting was sold to a gallery in London eight years ago. But, in 2012, it was evaluated and established as the same painting that was stolen by the German army from the Warsaw museum. Subsequently, at the initiative of Bharara’s office, the New York district court for the southern district ordered the seizure and return of this Seekatz painting to Poland.

The important thing is that, armed with this order, the US authorities took possession of the painting in London. It was the understatement of the year when Bharara’s office issued a press release claiming that this was done “with the voluntary cooperation of the gallery in London and returned the painting to New York”, where Poland’s minister of culture and national heritage flew in for a high profile ceremony to retake possession of this stolen work of art.

Two things stand out about the episode. One is that The Jerusalem Post put the story on its front page. Anyone familiar with New York’s murky politics knows what this means. For Bharara, it represents a stamp of approval by the Jewish community and their lobbies. No politician in New York City — less so, but not very much less, in New York State — has any hope of advancing his career without the support of the Jewish lobby.

Bharara may be taking on the Cohens, Martoma’s Jewish boss, on the one hand, and the Khobragades, on the other. So, the second point is that if Bharara manages to placate the Jewish community with their highest calling — righting Nazi wrongs — Bharara would have earned the irrevocable trust of the Jewish network not only in New York but also in the entire world. Therefore, make no mistake, Bharara is working according to a road-map and he will go far in America’s public life, notwithstanding what India and Indians think of him.

There was more evidence in the episode of the Seekatz painting alone that Bharara is working to a plan. It would not have been a coincidence that the painting was returned to Poland on the eve of the American release of a George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, about art-hunters who are after Nazi-plundered treasures similar to the Seekatz painting with the aim of restoring them to their pre-World-War-II owners.

To be fair to the ambitious New York prosecutor, it is not just the Jewish lobby alone that he is trying to placate. Last year, Bharara’s office came down with an iron hand on a paleontologist in Florida who had smuggled dinosaur bones out of Mongolia’s Gobi desert in an elaborate scheme of multiple shipments. Bharara’s office managed to put together, and return to Mongolia, the nearly complete skeleton of the 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex. The message in it may be that Bharara is no dinosaur, he is set to scale bigger heights in American public life.