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When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales raises his right hand to testify in his make-or-break hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, he’ll be facing down a roomful of hostile Democrats and skeptical Republicans. But behind the familiar faces, in the far-right side of Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building, will sit a man who is as responsible as anyone for bringing the leadership of the Justice Department to its knees. That will be Preet Bharara, 38, chief counsel to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, who has spearheaded the three-month investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. From the probe’s earliest days, Gonzales’ top staff knew all about Bharara’s Justice Department background, and because of that there was a sense they might be able to do business together. “He’s a reasonable SDNY AUSA who we hope to talk some sense into,” Gonzales’ then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, wrote in a Jan. 25 e-mail to White House staffer Jennifer Brosnahan. In a number of ways, Bharara’s past as a line prosecutor in one of the country’s most prominent districts, the Southern District of New York, has given him both credibility and insight in a probe that has sought to discover whether Gonzales and other top officials fired prosecutors for political reasons and then consciously tried to install replacements with the goal of circumventing the Senate confirmation process. “I think one of the reasons this has been hard on the Justice Department internally is because so many people have respect for him,” one senior Justice Department official says. “We can’t attack him as a political hack, because he’s not. He’s a political person, but first and foremost, he’s a prosecutor.” In addition, Bharara’s experience helping run large-scale prosecutions and his interrogation techniques, honed as a mob-busting assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, have all been brought to bear. Along the way, Bharara and a handful of other Democratic House and Senate Judiciary Committee lawyers have been aided by a number of stupefying missteps by the Justice Department — conflicting testimony, incriminating e-mails, and ham-handed dealings with the fired U.S. attorneys. Still, if Gonzales is forced to resign as a result of the scandal, it will be in no small part due to a lawyer his department trained and employed for five years. FRIENDLY FIRE Word first reached the Senate Judiciary Committee that something might be amiss at Justice when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) received a Jan. 6 tip that a U.S. attorney had been fired — allegedly without cause. Feinstein passed the information to the panel’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Schumer, who chairs the panel’s oversight subcommittee. Ten days later, The Wall Street Journal reported that at least seven U.S. attorneys had been fired, and the investigation was on. Bharara, who left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2005 and still has contacts littered throughout the department, immediately jumped on the allegations to see if there was substance. “Preet was appalled by it. He started making calls. He felt for these guys,” says a former Democratic committee staffer with knowledge of the investigation. “He started asking around and calling prosecutors.” Even by late January, little was publicly known about the firings. “I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing, serious investigation,” Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 18. But Bharara wanted more answers, and he pressed the Justice Department to send a witness to a hearing scheduled for early February. “When eight are fired, it just simply doesn’t make sense,” says a friend of Bharara’s who worked with him in the Southern District of New York. “Preet worked in a U.S. Attorney’s Office and knows you don’t ever see a U.S. attorney fired.” The view from inside Justice that Bharara was a reasonable adversary helped persuade the department to cooperate. And that initial cooperation would make it more difficult for the department to stonewall as the firings exploded into a scandal. “The original motivation behind playing ball was because of the kind of person they felt they had to play ball with,” says the senior Justice Department official, who was not involved in the firings. “Preet’s involvement was critical to the way people responded to the inquiry, including [Deputy Attorney General Paul] McNulty, who viewed him as fair.” As the department saw it, that reputation stood in contrast to that of the lead investigative counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, Elliot Mincberg, who had recently come to Capitol Hill from the feisty and avowedly liberal People for the American Way. “[Preet]‘s not a bomb-throwing left-wing person,” says the senior Justice official. “I don’t think his reputation is driving the ship anymore, but it got it out of the dock.” In what would become a fateful hearing, on Feb. 6, McNulty testified before the panel chaired by Schumer. There, he contradicted Gonzales’ statement about “never, ever” firing a U.S. attorney for political reasons by admitting that H.E. “Bud” Cummins III, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, had been pushed out only to open the job for a former deputy to White House political adviser Karl Rove. He also told the senators that the other U.S. attorneys had been fired for “performance-related” reasons. That comment sparked an angry response from the heretofore silent U.S. attorneys, whom Bharara and other Democratic staffers had been trying to persuade to testify voluntarily before Congress. Six U.S. attorneys would eventually testify on March 6, after subpoenas were authorized by the House Judiciary Committee. Bharara managed to persuade four to testify that same day before the Senate without having to resort to subpoenas. The testimony, exactly a month after McNulty’s hearing, depicted a department at war with itself, and began to erode support for Gonzales among Republicans on the Hill. One fired prosecutor said congressional Republicans had pressured him to bring a corruption case against Democrats, two others said they’d been told they were pushed out merely to make way for others, and another prosecutor alleged that a top Justice official had warned the fired U.S. attorneys that the department would attack them personally if they spoke out publicly. BUSTING MOBS AND BOSSES A native of New Jersey, Bharara attended Harvard University and Columbia Law School. At Harvard, he met Viet Dinh, who would become a top Justice official under Attorney General John Ashcroft. Though the two were miles apart ideologically, they became close friends. During their first week of classes, Dinh remembers, they stayed up all night arguing whether the Framers of the Constitution “thought mankind was inherently good or evil.” Bharara appeared to enjoy law school, especially the New York night life. “He was sort of the bad boy of [the Columbia Law Review], because he could get everything done and get good grades with an incredibly active social life, going out every night,” says John Galotto, a friend from those days who is now a partner at McKee Nelson in Washington, D.C. After law school, Bharara did stints in private practice with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and the now-defunct Shereff, Friedman, Hoffman & Goodman. In January 2000, Bharara moved to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York City, where he spent the next five years. There, he handled a case involving Chinese organized crime and the 2004 indictments of Anthony and Christopher Colombo, the first and fourth sons of Joseph Colombo Sr., from whom the Colombo crime family took its name. The Southern District, which is based in Manhattan and is often called the “sovereign district of New York,” has long had a reputation as one of the most independent of the 93 U.S. attorney districts. That’s a crucial point in the current scandal, which at its heart is about the degree of independence U.S. attorneys should maintain from Washington, says his former boss, the one-time U.S. attorney for the district, Mary Jo White. “To the extent [that] among the issues that have been raised is that [the fired U.S. attorneys] didn’t sufficiently adhere to Main Justice policies, that’s something Preet has seen from the Southern District of New York,” says White, a partner at New York’s Debevoise & Plimpton. THE BIG SHOW Bharara leads a small team of Senate lawyers that includes Jeremy Paris, a former Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld associate, and Jennifer Duck, the chief counsel to Judiciary Committee member Feinstein. On the House side, Republican Daniel Flores is handling duties for ranking Judiciary Committee member Lamar Smith (R-Texas), while Mincberg is leading the investigation for committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.). One of Mincberg’s deputies, Robert Reed Jr., is also a former assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia. In advance of Gonzales’ April 17 hearing, Bharara, representing Senate Democrats, and three other lawyers — representing Senate Republicans and House Democrats and Republicans — spent two full days querying top Justice officials behind closed doors. By all accounts, those interviews have been lengthy, although not as extensive as Hill staffers would have liked. At issue, in particular, has been the scope of the questioning and whether the Justice Department staffers are allowed to talk about material that was redacted in the document dumps, information that is said to contain the “political” rankings of all 93 U.S. attorneys and, in some cases, their possible replacements. On April 11, Acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer was questioned from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a lunch break. The following day, Michael Battle, the former Justice official tasked with firing seven of the U.S. attorneys on Dec. 7, was queried. (Earlier in the month, Michael Elston, the chief of staff to McNulty, was also interviewed.) Querying witnesses in a political investigation, of course, isn’t all that different from questioning mob soldiers about the activities of their bosses. “Preet’s method is very much what you do as a prosecutor,” says the senior Justice official. “He’s asking straightforward questions. He’s not playing tricks on people.” Adds Galotto: “He’s so disarming and friendly, people don’t realize he has a 100 mph fastball as a lawyer.” Meanwhile, Gonzales spent much of last week gearing up for a few of those fastballs. He spent hours each day — taking a break Thursday to attend the funeral of an FBI agent — fielding no-holds-barred questions from a small group of aides and reviewing documents about the dismissals. His task won’t be easy. Not only will Gonzales have to reconcile his own accounts of the firings, which have been publicly contradicted by Sampson and Justice Department e-mails, but he’ll also have to navigate through a potential minefield of statements his aides have made behind closed doors. Some would call that a classic perjury trap. “It’s a set-up,” says Stanley Brand, who was general counsel to the late Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. If so, it’s one that Bharara helped to frame.
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected]. T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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