FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara speaks during a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York City, U.S., July 13, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File photo(reuters_tickers)
By Noeleen Walder and Lawrence Hurley
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration's firing of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sent shockwaves through New York, but veterans of the high-profile office expect a longstanding mission of cracking down on political corruption and Wall Street wrongdoing to remain intact.
Staffed with more than one hundred career prosecutors, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office has a long history of being apolitical and pursuing a wide range of investigations into terrorism, public corruption, securities fraud and cyber crime, former prosecutors said.
Lorin Reisner, former head of the office's criminal division from 2012 to 2014, who is now in private practice at law firm Paul Weiss, said the priorities of the office are unlikely to change, regardless of who replaces Bharara.
"Generations of SDNY prosecutors have been told that their job is to do the right thing, for the right reasons, every day, in every case," he said, using the acronym for the office, the Southern District of New York.
Hanging in the balance are ongoing investigations of potential fraud at Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc and its ties to a mail-order pharmacy and of two massive data breaches at Yahoo Inc, including one affecting more than one billion user accounts.
The office is also investigating a major cyber heist from the Bank of Bangladesh involving funds which moved through the New York Federal Reserve bank.
Bharara, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, lived up to the office's reputation, investigating Republicans and Democrats alike. He has been overseeing a probe into Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's fundraising.
"It would be tremendously difficult for any U.S. attorney to come in and politicize that office,” said Carrie Cohen, a former prosecutor who worked under Bharara and is now in private practice at Morrison & Foerster.
President Donald Trump has yet to announce a replacement for Bharara or the other remaining 45 U.S. attorneys from the Obama era who were asked to step down on Friday.
U.S. attorneys are political appointees requiring confirmation by the U.S. Senate. They usually leave office when a new president is elected, although some remain for months to help with the transition.
But Bharara's removal from office came as a surprise because Trump had met with him after the election and indicated he would be retained. Bharara refused to resign, prompting his firing on Saturday.
LATITUDE TO ESTABLISH PRIORITIES
Whoever Trump appoints to replace Bharara will likely reflect U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session's priorities, including a desire to crack down on violent crime and less of a focus on civil rights cases.
There is growing speculation among former prosecutors and others in the legal community that Bharara's replacement will be Marc Mukasey, a defence lawyer whose father served as attorney general under Republican President George W. Bush. Mukasey declined to comment on Sunday.
In the short-term, the office will be headed by acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim. He is a veteran of the office, returning under Bharara in 2013 as a key deputy following an earlier stint from 2000 to 2006. In between, he was a partner at the Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton law firm.
A spokesman for the office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Outside of public corruption, Bharara was perhaps best known for overseeing a wave of cases focused on insider trading. Many of the investigations were already underway when Bharara took office in August 2009. But he became the face of the crackdown, landing on the cover of Time magazine in 2012 with the headline "This man is busting Wall St."
The new U.S. attorney will have some latitude on what to focus on in the future.
"Each U.S. attorney has his own order of priorities and how they see the resources of the office best used and each U.S. attorney also has the right to discontinue an investigation if they feel it's a waste of time," said Ben Brafman, a leading defence lawyer.
Sessions has, however, already signalled a shift away from some Obama administration priorities.
Unlike Bharara and his former bosses in the Obama administration, Sessions advocates trying foreign militants before military commissions instead of in civilian courts.
Bharara had pushed for trials in civilian courts while Sessions has criticized that approach and vouched for the ongoing value of trying foreign defendants before military tribunals.
On civil rights, Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said there was "growing anxiety" about the future of such cases since Bharara's firing.
(Additional reporting by Nate Raymond, Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Stempel and Nathan Layne; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Mary Milliken)