One name has dominated the pursuit of corruption across New York State, including accusations of bid rigging on the SolarCity plant in Buffalo, and that name is Preet Bharara.
Now the U.S. attorney in Manhattan is exiting his post after bringing charges against high-profile business leaders involved with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature upstate effort. Bharara would not heed the request he received on Friday to resign, so President Trump fired him Saturday.
What will happen to the complicated cases he has built, especially against the eight men facing charges of bid rigging, bribery and extortion?
Some legal experts and those involved in the cases say nothing will change. The charges are solid and eventually the cases will have their day in court.
"There will not be a sea change in the Buffalo Billion investigation because Preet is gone,” said Dennis C. Vacco, a former U.S. attorney.
Others, though, say the corruption case centered in Buffalo stemmed from a classic example of an overzealous prosecutor.
And Daniel C. Oliverio, who is defending Louis Ciminelli in that case, appeared heartened by the prospect of a new prosecutor, hinting that the prosecution’s approach could change with a new person in charge.
“We note with interest that Mr. Bharara has resigned, and we will proceed with our own pace and anticipate no change,” he said, “If another U.S. attorney wants to take this in a different way with regard to our clients, we’re more than willing to have that discussion.”
All agreed that once Trump installs his own person in one of the nation’s most powerful prosecutorial posts, the Bharara aura – which included convictions against some of the most power political leaders in New York State government – will disappear.
Vacco, though, offered a word of caution.
The “beauty of the Department of Justice is that is populated by career professionals,” said Vacco, who was forced out as U.S. attorney by the incoming Clinton administration in 1993.
“No case is going to be swept under the rug by any assistant U.S. attorney, the FBI, or the DEA,” said Vacco, who also served as state attorney general and is now in private practice. “They’re not going to let that happen.”
Bharara’s charges in the state development corruption investigations were lodged against eight men, including Ciminelli, head of LPCiminelli, which won the contract to build the SolarCity plant at RiverBend. Former LPCiminelli executives Kevin Schuler and Michael Laipple also were indicted.
Vacco noted that the bid-rigging indictments in the Buffalo case were supervised by judges and winding their way through the legal system.
“In my experience, a change at the top might signal new directions looking forward, but not a wholesale refocus on what’s happening,” he said. “The next U.S. attorney for the Southern District is not going to say let’s drop this case or that case. He or she would lose credibility.”
Vacco emphasized that replacing all 94 U.S. attorneys around the nation should not come as a surprise when a new administration takes over.
“There’s nothing new here,” he said.
Others noted that new approaches almost always accompany changes in federal prosecutors.
Former U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul emphasized prosecuting gangs throughout his tenure, said one defense attorney who asked not to be identified. Others before him, often focused on terrorism and other threats.
“A fresh set of eyes, a new guy in charge, it might mean a new look and a new set of priorities,” the attorney said.
Cuomo, whose inner circle has been affected by Bharara’s probes, was not asked about the firing during a Saturday appearance in Rochester and has not commented.
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer did not hesitate in his criticism of the move.
He said he was “troubled” by Bharara’s removal, especially after Trump as president-elect initiated a November call to assure him the prosecutor would be retained.
Schumer, the Senate minority leader, voiced fears Saturday about prosecutions Bharara initiated.
“While it’s true that presidents from both parties made their own choices for U.S. attorney positions across the country, they have always done so in an orderly fashion that doesn’t put ongoing investigations at risk,” Schumer said. “They ask for letters of resignation but the attorneys are allowed to stay on the job until their successor is confirmed.
“By asking for the immediate resignation of every remaining U.S. attorney before their replacements have been confirmed or even nominated, the president is interrupting ongoing cases and investigations and hindering the administration of justice,” he added.