NEW YORK (AP) — Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is not doing much to encourage speculation that he's on the short list to be the next attorney general. And he's not exactly discouraging it either.
Bharara's profile has grown steadily in his five years as head of one of the nation's most high-profile federal prosecutor's offices. He made the cover of Time magazine for his aggressive pursuit of Wall Street fraudsters. He's overseen the biggest civilian terrorism cases. And he stood up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his dismantling of an anti-corruption commission.
As recently as this week, Bharara used humor to deflect speculation he's among a handful of potential candidates for the job being vacated by Attorney General Eric Holder — a promotion that would make him the first Indian-American ever to serve on the cabinet.
"So here's the problem: When you have a very proud Indian mother and a vacancy seems to be coming open, she will call all the newspapers and say please put me on the list," he said at a recent public appearance. "So I've told my mom to stop calling."
He added: "I'm very happy doing my job. And that's all I'm going to say."
Still, Bharara sounded interested in the job, signaling that if he was in charge, the Justice Department would keep its current course.
"The focus on national security, the focus on cyber-crime, the focus on civil rights — I think all those things are incredibly important," he said. "My sense is the priorities are pretty good and in line with how we go about things."
Having already cleared confirmation hearings for his current job, the 45-year-old Bharara is thought to be looked on favorably from both sides of the aisle in Congress among a list rumored to include Solicitor General Don Verrilli, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Before he became U.S. attorney, Bharara was U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer's chief counsel, helping to lead the investigation into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys under President George W. Bush.
If Bharara were to get the job, he wouldn't have far to go to reconnect with some of his predecessors in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office. In the last year and two months, James Comey took over as FBI director and Mary Jo White became the top boss at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
White was U.S. attorney in Manhattan during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and in the months immediately afterward. Comey replaced her before he was appointed the No. 2 lawyer at the Justice Department in 2003.
White, in the top post in the Southern District of New York for most of a decade, built a team of terrorism prosecutors after the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing that won a string of high-profile terrorism convictions and excelled out of the office as well. Two became judges and three became U.S. attorneys.
One of them, Patrick Fitzgerald, was U.S. attorney for more than a decade in Chicago, where he put behind bars a former Republican governor and then his Democratic successor. Then as a special prosecutor, he won the conviction in Washington of a top aide to the vice president of the United States.
Another, Robert Khuzami, was named the SEC's enforcement director in 2009, a post he held until early 2013. In that role, he obtained historic settlements leading the agency's efforts to penalize the nation's largest banks for actions that set off the 2008 financial crisis.
"Cream rises to the top," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. "If you want the best, go to the Southern District, that's what I think."
He said most people consider the office to be the best federal prosecutor's office in the country, with unrivaled expertise in white collar and terrorism prosecutions.
"It means you're the best of the best," he said of those who work there. "A lot of cutting edge cases come out of there."
As a result, he said, people from the office are often high on the list of smart candidates for government leadership posts.
"If it's really about quality and ability, then why not?" Tobias said.