Prosecutor Berman Surprised Staff With Independence From Trump
(Bloomberg) -- When Geoffrey Berman was appointed to run the elite Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office in 2018, federal prosecutors questioned just how close he was to President Donald Trump, especially after Trump had orchestrated the tumultuous firing a year earlier of the office’s then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Berman had worked on Trump’s transition team and as a law partner of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s ally and personal lawyer.
Over the next two years, Berman showed a surprising independent streak as leader of the prosecutors in New York known for handling some of the nation’s highest-profile white-collar crimes. He paved the way on a series of hard-hitting cases -- including several targeting Trump associates, businesses and interests. Among those was Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, who went to prison after pleading guilty and implicating the president as “Individual-1” in a seamy case over hush-money payments to silence one of Trump’s alleged mistresses. Others included former Trump friend Jeffery Epstein and Trump nemesis Michael Avenatti.
“Berman was a Trump appointee who was unknown to a lot of us,” said Brooke Cucinella, who served six years as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan and is now a partner at Simpson Thacher in New York. “From day one, he said it was his intent to uphold the integrity of the office. I think his tenure has done that.”
But Berman’s independence put him at odds with his former patron and led to an ouster from the job even more unusual than Bharara’s.
With no advance word or explanation, Attorney General William Barr announced late Friday night that Berman would step down and be replaced temporarily by the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. Berman responded two hours later that he had no intention of quitting until the U.S. Senate confirmed a replacement, and that his office would continue its prosecutions. The next day, Barr asked Trump to fire Berman and then changed plans and said he’d appoint Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, to serve as the interim replacement in New York, after which Berman agreed to step down.
“It’s in the Department of Justice’s interest to provide full transparency as to how and why this decision was made in such an abrupt manner,” said Samidh Guha, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan for about six years who worked with Bharara. “If there is a proper reason for it, the public needs to know in order to lift the cloud that’s been created by this episode,” said Guha, who is a founding partner at the boutique litigation firm Perry Guha in New York.
Tensions aren’t new for the U.S. Justice Department in Washington and its feisty office in the Southern District of New York –- where prosecutors often refer to themselves as the “Sovereign District of New York.” But Barr’s efforts to exert more influence over the past year have been met with some resistance from Berman, 60, a New Jersey native who received his law degree from Stanford University.
Among the cases that rankled the president and his aides were prosecutions of two Giuliani associates trying to dig up political dirt in Ukraine on Trump political rival Joe Biden and an investigation into what role Giuliani played. Prosecutors said earlier this year they intend to file additional charges in the case, though none have come to date.
Another involved charges against a state-owned Turkish bank, Halkbank, accused of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions on billions of dollars in oil revenue. Evidence of the bank’s actions emerged in 2018, but more than a year passed before a formal indictment was filed. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton, in his forthcoming memoir, said Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would “take care of things” with the case.
Berman’s staff also reviewed whether American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, had violated the terms of its cooperation agreement in the Michael Cohen prosecution in publishing the expose of Amazon Inc. chief executive Jeff Bezos’ extramarital affair. The Enquirer is run by longtime Trump associate David Pecker and has often provided friendly coverage to Trump.
AMI, which had been implicated in the Cohen case and agreed to a deferred prosecution deal, potentially faced charges if prosecutors determined its conduct violated terms requiring it to abide by the law. The status of the review, which began in early 2019, remains unclear, but no charges have been filed.
Other investigations have looked at how donations to Trump’s inaugural committee were spent, whether Trump’s companies were involved in facilitating hush-money payments to alleged Trump mistresses, and whether Deutsche Bank AG -- Trump’s biggest lender -- violated money-laundering laws. Some of these investigations have moved forward, while others have seemingly gone dormant for years.
“The single most important thing to him as a prosecutor is to do the right thing in making prosecutorial decisions,” said Stephen Fishbein, who worked as a federal prosecutor with Berman in the 1990s in New York and is now a partner at Shearman and Sterling. “He’s someone of great integrity.”
While he’d served as a federal prosecutor early in his career, Berman returned to New Jersey in the early 2000s as a partner with the law firm Greenberg Traurig, where Giuliani would later join as a partner. By the time he was appointed by then-attorney general Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, Berman’s low-key style was a big change of pace from the high-wattage leadership of Bharara, when the office held frequent press conferences highlighting crackdowns on high-profile public issues such as insider trading and the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme.
But Berman was determined to preserve the office’s storied independence, including resisting outside political pressures from Washington.
The tradition and ethos of the office was that prosecutors would “do what’s right without fear or favor, Cucinella said. Those principles “were never threatened, and Berman made clear he would help protect the integrity of the investigations and the work of the line assistants.”
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