Stony Brook University’s Mattoo Center for India Studies hosted a discussion on legal ethics between former U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara and SBU Senior Managing Counsel, Susan Blum, in the Charles B. Wang Center on Friday night.
Bharara served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York for almost eight years after being appointed by then-President Barack Obama in 2009. In his time as a prosecutor for a federal district that includes all of New York City, he handled cases involving the failed 2010 bombing of Times Square, dark websites like The Silk Road and numerous Wall Street investigations.
“During his tenure, [Bharara] earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most aggressive and outspoken prosecutors,” Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said while introducing Bharara and Blum. “He supervised an office of more than 200 U.S. attorneys, who handled a high volume of cases involving terrorism, narcotics, financial and healthcare fraud, cybercrime, public corruption, gang violence, organized crime and civil rights violations. Under his leadership, the office experienced one of the most productive periods in its history.”
The conversation with Bharara began less than an hour after reports surfaced that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had submitted a report on his department’s two-year investigation into allegations President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russian government. The announcement elicited gasps from the audience.
“I just want to get the 800-pound gorilla off the table,” Blum said to laughs. “That means that there’s going to be a frenzy, and our guest will surely be frenzied running to CNN to discuss developments.”
The pair used the announcement as a springboard to bring up points about legal ethics raised in Bharara’s new book “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law.” The former U.S. attorney cautioned the audience against having high expectations for the Mueller report’s impact. He mentioned how prosecutors tend to become, according to his book, “empty vessels into which the public will place their hopes and their hatreds.”
“There’s lots of people who think he’s going to be a savior because he may do the thing that the election couldn’t do,” Bharara said. “Or if you’re on the other side of the spectrum you think he’s trying to take down a lawfully-elected president. I have been someone who’s been very skeptical given the reporting.”
Bharara reflected on the ethical challenges that come with a job that causes people to face heavy fines and prison time. He said one of the most important and difficult decisions a prosecutor can make is whether to walk away from a case that may evoke moral outrage, but does not fit the bill for legal punishment.
“Criminal law is a very blunt instrument,” Bharara said. “The prosecutor’s job in criminal law is to make sure beyond a reasonable doubt that someone committed a crime. Doesn’t mean the person didn’t do bad things, doesn’t mean the person doesn’t deserve your contempt … but if those criteria aren’t met then you have to walk away.”
Following the initial announcement of the Mueller report’s submission, some audience members were disappointed Bharara and Blum did not spend more time discussing the particulars of his investigation.
“I was wishing he would dwell more into the happenings nowadays,” Dutt Tarigoppula, an urban planner and traffic engineer from Stony Brook, said. “I know it is not possible, but it was still an excellent conversation.”
In contrast, other attendees thought the conversation was a refreshing break from a news cycle inundated with Trump discussion.
“He’s been on the news a lot lately, so I’ve heard him talk a lot about other issues,” Setauket resident Susan Imperato said. “It was kind of nice to hear him just speak about his book, which is relevant to what’s going on.”