Criticism is hard to take, especially false claims of bias. I thought I had a thick skin before I became U.S. Attorney, but I was not especially self-aware in this regard. Aristotle once said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” Wise words, but Aristotle didn’t live in the age of social media.
The key is to learn which criticism to take to heart to make yourself better and which criticism to laugh off; which criticism is well placed and which is foolish. The point is not to be dismissive about criticism but to be discerning about it.
Accused parties often grasp at straws in lashing out. Nowhere did I feel that more than when, from time to time, our office prosecuted people who, like me, were of Indian origin. Screams of “witch hunt” in that context were a bit more awkward and hurtful because the argument had to be that not only was I making decisions based on ethnicity but I also was bending over backward to direct agents and prosecutors to investigate people of my own ethnic background. I am not overstating this. I suppose because of the absence of any other Indian American U.S. Attorney at the time and the relative dearth of Indian American defendants, in the minds of some it was a spectacle when my office charged someone from South Asia.
In 2009, just a few days after we arrested the billionaire hedge fund CEO Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading (along with a number of white people, I might add), The Wall Street Journal ran an odd story. This was the first sentence: “It seems like a courtroom drama made for Bollywood: The Sri Lankan hedge-fund kingpin being prosecuted by a fellow immigrant, the Indian-born U.S. attorney for Manhattan.” That would be me.
Now imagine if a major news outlet had run a story like that a year earlier, except about a different blockbuster case: “It seems like a made-for-Broadway drama about the biggest Ponzi schemer in history: Bernard Madoff, who is Jewish, being prosecuted by a fellow Jew, U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin. It’s like something out of Fiddler on the Roof.”
Just imagine the outcry. How long would the writer of that article have remained employed?
I am a bit taken aback at how much was made of these coincidences. My goodness, there’s a South Asian defendant, and there’s a South Asian prosecutor! Holy cow! You know where this happens every day? India.
But the bubble of ethnic criticism didn’t end with certain Wall Street prosecutions or the hallucinations of an ethnic propagandist. There was once a more serious and sustained crisis. Several years into my tenure, in 2013, the State Department arrested a mid-level female Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, for visa fraud in connection with lies about what she would pay her domestic worker. She had agreed under penalty of perjury and other legal sanctions to pay her Indian domestic worker $9.75 per hour. The evidence showed that Khobragade paid Sangeeta Richard less than $1.00 an hour and violated a multitude of other fair labor practices in the United States. SDNY agreed to prosecute the case, at the State Department’s explicit request.
It was not the crime of the century but a serious offense nonetheless and a burgeoning problem among the diplomatic corps in the United States. That’s why the State Department opened the case; that’s why the State Department investigated it; that’s why the career agents in the State Department asked career prosecutors in my office to approve criminal charges.
Khobragade was afforded a number of courtesies during the course of her arrest, because of her diplomatic status, but she was strip-searched per regular procedure by the U.S. Marshals Service in the SDNY. That could have and should have been avoided, given that no one would have sought pretrial detention.
The arrest caused an international incident. It was an election year in India, and the ruling Congress Party was in danger of an electoral bloodbath loss to the Indian nationalist BJP. The BJP, the party of the future prime minister Narendra Modi, shrewdly seized upon this supposed Western insult to Indian sovereignty and caused a crisis for the Congress Party. Khobragade’s father, who had his own political ambitions in India, announced a hunger strike, though there is no evidence that he ever sacrificed a single calorie after making his dramatic announcement. But the drama was joined. The then secretary of state, John Kerry, was pressured to make the case go away. The Indians threatened retaliation against our embassy in New Delhi and suggested taking privileges away from American diplomats. At one point, as the Indian government raged, our largest democratic ally in the world—in its most hostile action—removed security barriers from the outside of the U.S. embassy.
I am proud of the case and how we upheld the rule of law. I defended our work, loudly. Because I was the U.S. Attorney and I happened to be Indian-born, an avalanche of vitriol and bile came my way. Never mind that the case was initiated and investigated by career law enforcement officials, and I personally became aware of it only the day before the arrest. The Indian government and press decided that the case was brought by me—an Indian American—for all manner of nefarious reasons.
Talk show hosts in India took to calling me a self-loathing Indian who made it a point to go after people from the country of his birth. My colleagues and I found all of it a bit odd, because the alleged victim in the case was also Indian. An Indian official asked on television, “Who the hell is Preet Bharara?” I was identified on another program as the most hated man in that country.
The criticism grew more and more intense, which might not have bothered me so much had my parents not been reading every word of it. It upset them greatly. Then came the evening when my daughter overheard a conversation in the living room. She asked me, “Daddy, what is an Uncle Tom?” Because that’s what I was being called by journalists in South Asia. That was not pleasant.
As the accusations grew more and more absurd, they became downright comical. Indian critics were angry because even though I hailed from India, I appeared to be going out of my way to act “American” and serve the interests of America. The thing is, I am American and the words “United States” were actually in my title.
Finally, I saw a peculiar line of attack in the foreign press, which was this: in a brazen betrayal of my roots, I had undertaken this case for only one reason—to serve my “white masters.” My white masters. These were, presumably, Eric Holder and Barack Obama.
This excerpt has been published from ‘Doing Justice’ with permission from Bloomsbury.