And so, I continued to grind in Newburgh. We were tantilizingly close to getting things off the ground there. Headlines continued to scream that the local violence was on the White House’s radar. And Senator Schumer brought the carnage and lawlessness up in a hearing in Congress where he directly confronted the FBI Director about it.
I cautiously allowed myself to feel like the effort was progressing as it should have all along. I finally had the necessary buy-in. Police departments and Sheriff’s Offices, and the State Police and the local District Attorneys were all suddenly clamoring to become a part of what we were building. But I still didn’t have a prosecutor. And the current U.S. Attorney for the SDNY still maintained that he wanted me removed.
“Don’t worry about that, Jimmy,” Joe affirmed. “I’ve spoken to Preet about the violence in Newburgh. And, I’ve told him all about you.” He paused. “You’re not going anywhere. Go do your job. Preet wants to partner his top prosecutors, really experienced folks, with your team.” The upper reaches of the SDNY’s territory, in the new U.S. Attorney’s own words, according to Joe, were to be ignored no longer. The tipping point had arrived in the form of a forty-year-old prosecutor who had been born in Firozpur, India, and adamantly believed that the “culture” in parts of the mighty SDNY needed to be changed. And change they soon did.
As I hung up the phone with the Assistant-Director –in-Charge, I felt a sense of overwhelming relief. The hard work was still ahead of us, but I felt a palpable sense of pride and vindication. I trusted Joe. And if he knew and spoke so resoundingly about this guy Preet Bharara, I was excited to meet him. And meet him I did. Shortly after that late night call with Mr. Demarest, the new United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York dispatched his Deputy, Boyd Johnson, and two Manhattan-based AUSAs to meet with me and my team.
I was taken aback by the promptness of this meeting, coming on the heels of Bharara’s barely having had time to open his boxes and unpack his new office in lower Manhattan. And I was fairly blown away by the AUSAs he had assigned to this original Newburgh effort; Michael Maimin and Harris Fischman. These two prosecutors were different. They were “snake eaters” — the complimentary JSOC parlance I had picked up in Khost, Afghanistan whilst assigned to U.S. Army Special Forces detachments and U.S. Navy SEAL teams.
Mike and Harris embodied what the HVSSTF was all about. They were “wartime consiglieres,” gifted prosecutors who expertly employed artful prose when quoting the law they had committed to memory. And they certainly understood cops and were specialists in dealing with gang prosecutions. They treated my cops and agents like colleagues and collaborators. That meant more to me than anything. The task force immediately fell in love with Mike and Harris. They were like us. They WERE us.
Most tellingly, the prosecution team’s guidance from Preet Bharara was simple — treat the FBI team, in fact, treat all of the investigators bringing cases to the SDNY, like “clients.” The answer was never to be “no,” EVER. Any disagreement on tactics and strategy was always to be couched with a “We may not be able to do it that way. How about we try this… .”
And there it was. We were no longer adversaries. The FBI and the SDNY in the Hudson Valley counties were finally working together, as a team. We more than capably handled the first half hour of “Law & Order,” and under Preet’s tutelage, the prosecutors expertly handled the second half hour. I smile at the memories — I have Preet Bharara to thank for this. He cut through the intra-agency bullshit. Leaders lead, and they establish the agency’s “culture”. The SDNY was “different” now.
The HVSSTF and the SDNY have since churned out a string of remarkable investigations and prosecutions since I left for Mexico in 2012. They continue to partner in a cooperative manner and that — more than anything else, I’ll argue —has steadily contributed to driving down violent crime rates in the region and also served as a de facto example for other districts to model. Don’t believe me? Look it up.
And as I read the news surrounding Preet’s tweet confirming his firing by the Attorney General, I felt a sense of numbness. I had harbored a sense of faint hope — following the much ballyhooed Trump Tower meeting between the president and the SDNY’s U.S. Attorney back last November — that maybe, just maybe, the then president-elect would sense the utility in keeping Mr. Bharara on. But my gut instincts told me in advance, this was so much whistling past the graveyard. Preet was out. And a part of me felt a visceral loss. There had been a “death” in our local law enforcement family. And I still feel it…
It was Preet who had taken on the rampant and unchecked corruption in Albany and had attacked dirty pols with vigor and zeal, never allowing their party affiliation to matter. Having served on a Public Corruption squad during my FBI career, I recalled the disgusting conversations I had listened to in overhears. The politicians always seemed to elude justice with their penchant for bribery and pay-to-play — but, not once Preet arrived. He was criticized for grandstanding and for calling out the disgraced.
But he never backed down. He never appeared to do anything other than call balls and strikes; exactly what the district’s chief law enforcement officer is supposed to do. His only “sin” — his “original sin,” if you will — was to have once worked as counsel for Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). And THAT Senator Schumer currently serves as Senate Minority Leader and the current president’s single largest “pebble” in the proverbial “sandal.” Preet Bharara was also originally appointed by the 44th president of the United States.
Politics is a “contact sport” these days. And if you disagree with anything the 44th POTUS ever did, then you simply cannot agree with anything he ever did at all. Polarized and hyper-partisan times we currently exist in. And that’s the framework for how the environment whereby decisions like the one to fire the U.S. Attorney for the SDNY are currently constructed.
You certainly understand why I am personally sad to see Mr. Bharara leave. In some not-so-small way, he saved my career back in the late summer of 2009. Without his partnership and his decision not to accede to his predecessor’s recommendation regarding a defiant young FBI chief who desperately wanted to help bring relief to Newburgh, there’d have been no stories written about our efforts in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Hudson Valley Magazine, and New York Newsday. NPR wouldn’t have bothered to report on the innovative and impactful law enforcement efforts to combat the violent street gangs.
There’d be no calls from Hollywood to chronicle the work of the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force, and no documentary filmmakers would have taken interest in the righteous fight to save Newburgh from the gangs, and the drugs, and the violence…and the hopelessness.
And as for me, I probably wouldn’t have finished my career with the FBI in 2015, as the chief-of-staff for the Assistant Director. I also probably wouldn’t have secured the current platform I have to speak on Leadership topics in academic and motivational settings. Probably wouldn’t have been hired by St. John’s University, without a master’s degree, to teach undergraduates, simply because someone had read about my exploits as (their words) a “tenacious crime fighter and someone who refuses to back down from a righteous fight.”
If I’m any of those things, I have Preet Bharara to thank for being my career’s “tipping point”. And most recently, I most certainly wouldn’t have been afforded a platform to appear on CNN as a guest “Law Enforcement Analyst”. I certainly owe a lot of things in my life to a lot of different people. But I attribute much of the salvaging of my professional career, as well as the ability to follow-through on the job of making a difference in a community that I still love and remain forever committed to, to one Preet Bharara.
Thank you, Mr. Bharara. I am but one of legions of folks whose lives and careers you impacted. I salute you, sir, and I thank you for always doing the right thing, no matter how politically expedient. You are forever a mentor and a friend and one of my heroes. And having spent some time walking amongst real heroes — some who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation along the way — that is some fairly high praise. Godspeed, Boss. You will be missed. Though I certainly recall those historic words about the relationship between cemeteries and indispensable men — General de Gaulle be damned — I simply don’t know how you can ever be replaced.