ALBANY, N.Y. — New York-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Saturday that the Trump administration fired him after he refused to its request to resign along with 45 other U.S. attorneys across the nation.
"I did not resign," Bharara said on Twitter. "Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY (Southern District of New York) will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life."
The surprising decision by the Trump administration late Friday to dismiss 46 federal prosecutors held over from the Obama administration, including Bharara, sent shockwaves through New York.
Bharara's departure was seen a major blow to the crusading prosecutor's quest to root out corruption in state and local governments.
Since taking office in 2009, the Westchester County resident led the successful conviction of the state's two former legislative leaders, Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, and is in the middle of prosecuting Gov. Andrew Cuomo's former top aides for alleged bid rigging and kickbacks.
The cases could go to trial as early as this spring.
"It's shocking because he's done a great job," said Blair Horner, the legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The dismissals of Bharara and other U.S attorneys, while described by the Justice Department as a perfunctory part of the ongoing transition to the Trump administration, nevertheless come at a delicate time. Last week, Trump claimed in a series of tweets that former President Obama had ordered the electronic surveillance of Trump's New York offices in advance of the November election.
Trump has provided no support for the sweeping allegation of criminal activity on behalf of the previous administration. Obama has dismissed the allegation and the former director of national intelligence has said no such action was taken.
FBI Director James Comey also had sought a public rebuke of the allegation from the Justice Department. Justice officials have not acted on that request.
As the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, appointed almost eight years ago by Obama, Bharara's office also would have been in position to know if such a surveillance operation against Trump existed.
Bharara oversees the Southern District of New York, which runs through Manhattan, the Bronx and north through the Hudson Valley into Dutchess County.
"He's the kind of person you want in the government: someone who enforces the law without fear or favor," Horner continued. "He's taken on Democrats; he's taken on Republicans; he's taken on the mob; he's taken on terrorists; he's taken on Wall Street scoundrels."
What added to the stunning announcement was that Trump met privately with Bharara in November and asked Bharara to stay. Bharara agreed, saying both Trump and incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked him to stay.
But in a quickly changing political atmosphere in Washington, the pledge to Bharara appeared to change.
The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that Bharara was among the U.S. attorneys told to resign — who were all Obama appointees.
"The Attorney General has now asked the remaining 46 presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys to tender their resignations in order to ensure a uniform transition," Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.
“Until the new U.S. attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our U.S. Attorney’s Offices will continue the great work of the department in investigating, prosecuting, and deterring the most violent offenders."
Ties to Schumer
Bharara, 48, is former chief counsel to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, whose relationship with Trump has soured in recent months.
Schumer, a Democrat, said late Friday that Trump assured him in November he wanted to keep Bharara.
“I’m troubled to learn of reports of requests for resignations from the remaining U.S. attorneys, particularly that of Preet Bharara, after the president initiated a call to me in November and assured me he wanted Mr. Bharara to continue to serve as U.S. attorney for the Southern District," Schumer said in a statement.
Bharara has led the corruption case against Cuomo's former top aide, Joseph Percoco; former SUNY Polytechnic Institute president Alain Kaloyeros and five upstate developers.
While his district is in the New York City area, Bharara's cases have cut across the state, including the conviction of late state Sen. Thomas Libous, who was found guilty of lying to the FBI in 2015. The Binghamton senator was forced from office and died last year.
Success in corruption fighting
During his tenure, Bharara slapped nearly 30 public officials with corruption charges.
"Preet Bharara is a New York hero. I am gut-punched to hear he was asked to resign. Right when we need rule of law," Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law professor who ran for governor in 2014 and Congress last year as a Democrat, wrote Saturday morning on Twitter.
Schumer said the immediate dismissal of the prosecutors could impact ongoing cases, saying while new presidents pick their own U.S. attorneys, they have "always done so in an orderly fashion that doesn’t put ongoing investigations at risk."
Bharara's next move will be closely watched.
Even the fact that he started his own personal Twitter account earlier this month fueled speculation about his future.
Bharara has often been talked about a potential political candidate for office — perhaps for governor or New York City mayor.
Legacy in office
In addition to investigating state government, he has probes into New York City Hall, as well as alleged malfeasance in Ramapo, Rockland County.
Horner said Bharara's impact is on the level of former U.S. Attorney Thomas Dewey, the crusading prosecutor who went on to become governor and a presidential candidate twice in the 1940s.
"Bharara seemed to be personally offended by what he saw and made it a priority," Horner said.
Bharara's efforts also revealed how weak New York's own ethics enforcement has been — relying on federal prosecutors to find corruption, Horner said.
"If you get rid of him, it highlights the weakness of the state's current enforcement apparatus," Horner said.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, David Jackson
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