Preet Bharara, GM's foe in ignition switch probe, wins a lot

Preet Bharara is the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

DETROIT — Meet Preet Bharara — the man General Motors must ultimately appease as it works towards a settlement in an investigation into its ignition switch recall.

Bharara, who oversees a staff of about 220 of the Justice Department's best attorneys, will ultimately approve any settlement reached that resolves a criminal investigation into the automaker's ignition switch recall and possible cover-up.

He has been portrayed by Time and Fast Company magazines and by The New York Times as a rock star among U.S. attorneys and has earned a reputation for successfully prosecuting prominent hedge fund managers, extracting big settlements from banks and prosecuting terrorists.

Bharara is GM's highest ranking-ranking legal adversary for the automaker as it works to resolve legal woes created by waiting years to recall 2.6 million vehicles with potentially faulty ignition switches implicated in crashes that caused more than 100 fatalities.

"There are lots of observers calling (Bharara) the Sheriff of Wall Street. And he has been effective," said John Coffee, a professor of law at Columbia Law School in New York. "But that has been tradition for the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York."


Coffee points out that others who have led the office, including Mary Jo White from 1993 to 2002, and Rudolph Giuliani from 1983 to 1989, also earned reputations as effective and aggressive prosecutors.

Still, the hyper-competitive Bharara has rarely failed to obtain a conviction or win a settlement and has become a prominent and even, at times, controversial figure in the legal world. Bharara was a perfect 85-0 on insider trading convictions and guilty pleas of hedge fund traders, analysts and others, before losing a case last July.

"He is very good and I do think he has pursued these cases rather aggressively," Coffee said.

Sworn in August 2009, Bharara has convicted scores of insider trading defendants, including Galleon hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam, former McKinsey & Co. managing partner Rajat Gupta, forced SAC Capital Advisors to pay a $1.2 billion fine and agree to stop managing money for outside investors and convinced eight of its former employees to plead guilty.

Insider trading convictions are just part of the cases his office handles. In recent weeks, Bharara's office has announced the arrest of the son of a former president of Honduras for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and won a life sentence for Khalid al-Fawwaz — a terrorist who was involved in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Bharara's office also led the investigation into Toyota following its recall of millions of cars for unintended acceleration that led to a $1.2 billion settlement.

Toyota's settlement included an admission by the auto manufacturer that it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about two safety issues affecting its vehicles.

Unlike Toyota, GM has cooperated with investigators but may face a fine larger than Toyota because it waited years before it recalled any cars.


Carl Tobias, professor of law at the University of Richmond, said Bharara's office will use the expertise it gained from the Toyota investigation and apply it to the GM investigation.

Bharara is not talking publicly about the GM investigation. In fact, a spokeswoman for the office declined to acknowledge that an active investigation.

The Detroit Free Press, along with scores of other media organizations, has confirmed that the Justice Department has had an active, ongoing investigation that could be settled by the end of this summer.

Bharara was not available for an interview with the Free Press, but he has not shied away from the spotlight.

Last year, Bharara told graduates at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York that he believes deeply in the power of the law "as a basis to rectify wrongs, compensate victims, undo discrimination, protect speech, and guarantee liberty and equality in a thousand other ways also."

Still, he warned students that the law's power to right wrongs is limited by the intentions of the people who enforce and interpret it.

"The law can have great force, but in order to truly form a more perfect union, it needs an assist from human beings who think and feel beyond it," Bharara said.

When he spoke in 2014 at Harvard Law School he told graduates that the power of a law degree is "unmatched in American society."


"I think it is not an overstatement to suggest the power of your degree gives you a degree of power that few possess, fewer know how to use and fewer still put to good purpose."

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