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Ex-prosecutor Bharara mulls NY AG race in fall

Former U.S. Attorney General for the Southern District

Former U.S. Attorney General for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 2017. Photo Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

ALBANY — Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan who was fired by President Donald Trump in March 2017, said in his regular podcast Thursday that he had been approached by several people to run for state attorney general.

“In respect to what I will do about the election in November, that’s for another day,” Bharara said on his podcast, “Stay tuned. So we’ll see.”

The legislature is moving forward to fill the position vacated late Monday by Eric Schneiderman, who was accused of physical abuse by four women. Schneiderman’s term ends Dec. 31, but Bharara — whose investigations as a prosecutor made him wildly unpopular in Albany — said he had ruled out seeking an appointment to the job.

As U.S. attorney, he prosecuted several legislature members and executive branch aides on corruption charges. Bharara’s investigation of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration led to prosecutions.

Without identifying anyone, Bharara said he had been urged to consider a run by many people, including some who stop him on the street.

“I’m very flattered by that, and I’m very touched by that,” Bharara said in his podcast. “It’s an important job, and it’s never been more important, but I’m not sure that I want the job. Politics is not my cup of tea . . . but it is a really important job, and it’s especially important now when the rule of law is under attack.”

“So it is a tough thing to think about,” he said.

In his podcast, Bharara criticized Albany culture as a pay-to-play morass, saying he did not trust the legislature to pick the best person to replace Schneiderman.

“It’s unclear how fair that process will be,” Bharara said. “It does have the look and feel of a backroom deal, and it’s not something I want to be part of.”

He urged the legislature to allow acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood to fill the post until Schneiderman’s successor is determined in the fall elections.

Bharara “would be a formidable candidate if he chose to run,” said Bradley Simon, a former federal prosecutor. “He has the name recognition, and has a reputation for having accomplished quite a lot.”

Some of the leading candidates for the legislature’s appointment — a job that could lend an advantage in the fall elections — are New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), and Assemb. Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan).

“Bharara certainly has an impressive resume, but he’s untested as a candidate,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena Research Institute poll. “He likely would start with more name recognition among voters than many of the other candidates, however, he will likely start behind on money and organizing for a primary that is just four months away.”

Other political analysts say that Bharara, an immigrant and Harvard and Columbia graduate, would have more going for him than most candidates.

“To the extent he’s seen as an outsider, that would only enhance his appeal,” said Larry J. Sabato, professor and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Voters, and not just Republicans, tend to believe these days that people steeped in politics for decades are corrupt. Bharara has a very clean image, and he’s seen as a corruption fighter, not a participant.”

Sabado said that Bharara has the “experience and media savvy to run a strong race.” He also has, as Sabado put it, “the right enemy — his clashes with Donald Trump can’t hurt in a Democratic state.”

In that respect, Bharara would be seizing what would have been Schneiderman’s main platform if he had run for a third term. Schneiderman has spent much of the past two years suing the Trump administration over regulatory matters, environmental protection and the now-defunct Trump University.

As a prosecutor, Bharara’s work led to convictions against former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), each of whom is being retried this year.

Bharara also led the probe of Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” project. That investigation led to charges against developers who received state contracts and were also big contributors to Cuomo’s campaigns. Cuomo’s former top aide and confidant, Joseph Percoco, and one of Cuomo’s longtime associates and former aides, Todd Howe, were charged in the bribery case for work they did as lobbyists for developers. Percoco was convicted in March on three counts of soliciting and taking bribes in March and Howe awaits sentencing for bribery and embezzlement.

“Any institution can have bad apples,” Bharara said in 2014 about Albany. “But the first line of defense is the institution itself. . . . It seems they’re doing a pretty bad job of self-policing.”

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