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Preet Bharara, New Sheriff of Albany, Eyed for Higher Office

By  Jill Colvin and Murray Weiss | April 5, 2013 3:48pm | Updated on April 5, 2013 4:29pm

NEW YORK CITY — He's the star prosecutor who, in one week, has taken down one state senator, two assemblymen, a councilman and two GOP bosses in two alleged bribery plots that have rocked the political world.

And he hints more heads will roll.

It's just the latest in a series of high-profile catches for Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who has spent the last four years lassoing one corrupt city politician after the next  fueling renewed speculation that the self-appointed Sheriff of Albany might harbor political ambitions of his own.

“Is Preet Bharara the new Rudy Giuliani?” asked Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio, pointing to similarities with the former mayor, who held the same post in the 1980s and used it to hunt down corrupt politicians and as a springboard to public office.

“There’s lots of similarities,” he said of the men's ascents.

“What else is next? Senate? Congress?” one Justice Department official asked.

Through a spokeswoman, Bharara swatted the speculation, insisting he was staying put.

“Preet thinks he has the best job in the world and has absolutely no interest in running for public office,” his spokeswoman Ellen Davis said in a statement.

But friends and associates were far more open to the suggestion.

“I have no idea whether he aspires to future public office, but I hope that he does, because he's one of the most able public servants we have out there today and we need more great people in public service," said Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor under Giuliani, who worked with Bharara at the firm Gibson Dunn and considers him a close friend.

Mastro said he, too, saw similarities between the tough-talking Bharara and his former boss.

“They are very different people but they are both remarkably effective and dedicated public servants," he said.

Bharara has spent the past four years in the headlines and splashed across magazine covers for his work taking down corrupt politicians, prosecuting terror suspects and insider trading, and recovering stolen cash, including the largest-known recovery in municipal contract fraud in U.S. history following the CityTime debacle.

This week, his takedowns included Queens State Sen. Malcolm Smith, City Councilman Daniel Halloran and Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson in connection with two elaborate alleged bribery schemes, including one that tried to get Smith on the ballot for New York City mayor.

Since August 2009, he has nabbed a whopping 15 elected officials and associates in public corruption cases, including State Sen. Carl Kruger, who was sentenced to seven years in prison, and Councilman Larry Seabrook, who was sentenced to five years behind bars. To highlight his cases, the office created a colorful chart featuring all the names, positions, charges and outcomes of each of the arrests.

The Indian-born Bharara, who is increasingly comfortable behind the podium and dealing with reporters, likes to pepper his press conferences with references to movies and TV shows, and jokes with reporters.

In his latest press conference on Thursday, Bhara spoke reverently of the democratic process, in what at times sounded like a stump speech for office.

"Whenever corruption is on the rise, democracy is on the decline," Bharara said.

And he made a point to separate himself from New York's culture of corruption, positioning himself as the watchdog over Albany while also chastising those in Albany who "saw something and said nothing."

"If you are a corrupt official in New York, you have to worry that one of your colleagues is working with us and that your misdeeds will be reported and reported to us, and that it will be that much harder to escape punishment," he said on Thursday, leaving legions of lawmakers nervously wondering whether they, too, had been subjected to wiretaps or secret video footage.

Still, sources in the U.S. Attorney's Office said Bharara appears to genuinely enjoy his current post in New York — including the recent attention —  and said he appeared uninterested in election politics, leading to speculation that he might instead angle for another government job, potentially vying to be the next U.S. Attorney General, or perhaps the next director of the FBI, they said.

Bharara is no stranger to criticism, including digs that he has sometimes taken too much credit for cases that began before he took office — particularly several high-profile insider trading cases.

Still, sources said, his name has been floated as a potential successor to his boss, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a position that some close to him said he would relish.

But one source in the Justice Department noted that, given the current political climate, there are not many open jobs for Bharara, who formerly served as chief counsel to Sen. Chuck Schumer, leading the 2006 Congressional investigation into the firings of United States attorneys under the Bush administration.

The New York City mayor's race is already well underway and the state's senate seats are filled. Holder won't be leaving until at least the fall, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's name has frequently been floated as a likely front-runner, the source noted, meaning that Bharara might need to bide his time for at least a couple of years until, perhaps the next mayoral race.

Still, another federal source said the doors were wide open.

"He can have just about anything his wants," the source said. "He’s done an amazing, amazing job."