In May of 2008, I had never heard of Preet Bharara. I had just concluded a stint as the FBI’s Crisis Management Coordinator in New York City and was ready for a change. I lived a few miles south of Newburgh and had coached its youngsters for years, in dingy, barely lit church gyms and at the Newburgh Boys & Girls Club on Liberty Street — ground zero for the gang wars of the late 2000s. When an innocent 15-year-old Newburgh youngster, Jeffrey Zachary, was gunned down by Latin King assassins, in a case of mistaken identity, in May of 2008, I made my move.
I lobbied hard to the senior Executive Management folks within the FBI’s New York Office that Newburgh’s gang violence was reaching pandemic proportions. With a population of just some 29,000 and a tiny four square mile city limits, and the Bloods and Latin Kings having declared open warfare on each other had given Newburgh an eerie resemblance to sections of war-torn Afghanistan that I experienced in parts of 2002 and 2003. FBI Management acquiesced. I was dispatched to Newburgh, a city I knew well, with orders to find a solution to its crime problems.
I was beyond ecstatic but tempered in my enthusiasm. I was familiar with the old cop-joke that the symbiotic relationship between investigators and prosecutors was like an episode of NBC’s “Law & Order” drama — law enforcement handles the first half-hour of the hour-long show, and the prosecutors handle the second half-hour. That relationship between investigator and prosecutor was essential. If the two components cannot find a way to work together, there is no case to bring.
And in the upstate New York hinterlands of Newburgh, the SDNY was notorious for ignoring or minimizing its involvement in the process. Their typical modus operandi for decades had been to push cases back to the local district attorneys; much preferring to focus on the high profile Manhattan cases that were ripe for the picking. Innumerable state and local prosecutors began grumbling to me in my new position as SSRA that the SDNY would provide no support or resources and that I was “wasting my time” attempting to bring federal cases in upstate New York.
More personally, I began to severely butt heads with the chief in charge of the White Plains office for the SDNY, the one that was supposed to provide service to the office I was now running and the HVSSTF that now numbered some thirty federal agents, New York State Police troopers, and local detectives. The SDNY chief was recalcitrant and intractable in pushing back. The chief had assuredly read about and heard of the legendary crime problems in Newburgh but did not envision a federal case there. When presented with irrefutable evidence that supported federal involvement — relief to the beleaguered folks in Newburgh, if you will — the chief consistently delayed and slow-walked everything, and the nickname applied to this bureaucrat became a play on the word “declination.” Declination, as in, “We’re sorry, Jimmy, but after reviewing the evidence you’ve provided, the SDNY is declining prosecution in this matter.” Move along. Nothing to see here.
Suffice it to say, I wasn’t exactly inviting the chief over for a beer. I wasn’t a fan. The feeling was most definitely mutual. The fractured relationship became a source of humor for my task force. “Ol’ Jimmy attempting to fight “city hall” again,” they’d chortle. I laughed along with them. But I knew that something HAD to change. Lives were at stake. And I was convinced that only the federal government could bring the necessary resources to bear to mitigate the violent crime paralyzing and terrifying Newburgh.
And so the body count in the Newburgh’s relentless never-ending gang war continued to rise. Dejected, I began doubting what some folks had told me were my prolific powers of team-building and coercion and motivation. This effort was doomed to fail, I begrudgingly admitted to myself. Maybe some things are just meant to be. You simply cannot fight “city hall”, right? Isn’t that what everyone keeps telling me? And as powerful and transcendent as the storied SDNY was, maybe things simply weren’t meant to change…
And then it happened…
Word leaked out that a maverick FBI Assistant Director was headed back from FBIHQ to lead the FBI’s New York Office. He and I had come up together through the ranks and served as teammates on the New York SWAT Team. He and I were fairly alike, beyond the shaved heads and large frames. Joe Demarest was all about accountability and did not suffer fools well. He was crisp in his responses and unrelenting in his pursuit of the higher mission. He was a true man of honor. We met privately during his transition and I described Newburgh to him. He was fairly confident that a former AUSA he had worked cases within the 1990s, and now currently serving as a counsel for Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), was soon to be headed back to take over the SDNY.
The incoming Assistant-Director-in-Charge, Mr. Demarest, wanted to more thoroughly discuss the Newburgh crime situation with me. He appreciated my military background and had seemed open to the notion of replicating the U.S. military’s “surge” tactic success in Iraq — and surging (providing) more FBI Agents and resources to my territory to support the effort was a great place to begin. If nothing else, it brought more attention to the problem, and more hands to divvy up the work. The SDNY would have to notice. It HAD to, right? I desperately needed that Law & Order second half-hour. This all seemed so promising. This was music to my ears. But I still had a hurdle to overcome.
I recall Demarest’s words, shortly after we had originally discussed the “surge” strategy. It occurred in an after-midnight phone call and strategy session. “Don’t worry, Jimmy, the planets are aligning. Preet Bharara is about to be named U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. This bullshit with the Southern District is about to stop. We’re going to make a federal gang case in Newburgh. The city and the region have been ignored by us for far too long. Stay strong” I smiled.
“Joe, there’s something else that I need to tell you.” He chuckled. I could imagine him shaking his head in mock disgust. “What’d you do, Bro?” “Well,” I stammered, “it’s kind of complicated.” I was stalling. How to tell him that the current U.S. Attorney for the SDNY, Michael J. Garcia had recommended to FBI Executive Managers that I be removed from my post, reassigned to a desk post back in Manhattan. He claimed it was difficult for his career prosecutors to work with. And that I was too demanding.
“Yes,” I recounted to Joe, “leaders create a culture and an environment for their subordinates to exist within.” Some of the current SDNY leadership — the ones I was forced to work with — worked harder to avoid taking on a prosecution, than what would be required if they simply did their jobs. On the other end of the line, I heard a small chuckle. “Jimmy,” Joe emphatically blurted out, “you’re REALLY going to LOVE Preet Bharara.”
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