Maid in Manhattan Case: U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the Man Who Makes Embassy Row Tremble

— Domani Spero

On December 12, USDOJ announced the arrest of Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade for visa fraud related to her underpaid domestic employee.

The uproar caused by the arrest has only grown in the last several days.  In response to the arrest of its diplomat, India took several retaliatory actions against the U.S. Mission in India. Several examples below according to DNA India, some obviously petty, but others more serious:

  • Indian government officials cancelled their meetings with a visiting US Congressional delegation.
  • Called for details including salaries paid to all Indian staff employed at the US consulates, including Consulate officers & family.
  • Stopped all import clearances for US embassy including food and liquor.
  • “The government has asked for all US Consulate personnel’s ID cards and that of their families immediately. These will now be downgraded on par with with what the US provides to our Consulates in US,” sources said.
  • Asked the US to provide it with visa information and other details of all teachers at US schools and pay and bank accounts of Indians in these schools.

Then the former External Affairs Minister and BJP leader, Yashwant Sinha, called on the government to reciprocate against the alleged mistreatment of its diplomat by arresting the same sex companions of American diplomats using a Supreme Court verdict in India that restored a ban on gay sex.  “Put them behind bars, prosecute them in this country and punish them,” Mr Sinha said.  It appears he wasn’t alone.  According to NPR, a “senior Indian diplomat” told The Hindu that the government could retaliate against the gay partners of U.S. diplomats.  “We also know who all have brought in their gay partners and on what grounds they were given visas though there is a law against it in India,” the official said. “We can’t talk about it because this law is controversial and outdated but if the U.S. wants to go to this extent, then this law and several other options are there.”

On December 17, Delhi Police also removed the security barricades set up outside the American Embassy. “The ministry of external affairs requested us to remove these traffic measures around the US embassy and clear the road. The Nyaya Marg has been opened for public,” Special commissioner of Delhi Police (security) Taj Hassan told PTI.

The Indian Government must think of embassy security as a diplomatic privilege and not an obligation.  The Global Terrorism Index ranked India 4th (after Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan) as most affected by terrorism over a 10-year period.  So there is obviously a reason for those barricades.

Meanwhile, the diplomat at the center of the storm has written a letter to her colleagues, which was released online, and certainly adding to the furor about her alleged mistreatment:

My dear colleagues – senior and junior, 

I am so grateful for all the outpouring of unequivocal support and backing that has been available to me from the fraternity. I take comfort in the confidence that this invaluable support will also be translated into strong and swift action, to ensure the safety of me and my children, as also to preserve the dignity of our service which is unquestionably under siege.

While I was going through it, although I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity, I got the strength to regain composure and remain dignified thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride.

I feel I can continue to do so thanks to this strong and prolific support. I cannot say more now but will later, I did feel the deep need to thank you all so much. 

On December 18, the Embassy of India in Washington, D.C. released a statement that provides additional details of this case including accusations that the maid, Sangeeta Richard, Ms. Khobragade’s “domestic assistant” blackmailed her former employer and also have “taken cash, mobile phone and documents.”

On the same day, Secretary Kerry reportedly called Indian National Security Advisor Menon to discuss the December 12th arrest of Deputy Consul General Khobragade.  According to the State Department, in his conversation with National Security Advisor Menon, Secretary Kerry  “expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India.”

Also on December 18, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara  released a statement on the United States v. Devyani Khobragade case, clearing up misconceptions about the circumstances surrounding her arrest. No, she was not arrested in front of her children, and she was not handcuffed or restrained. And yes, she was “fully searched by a female Deputy Marshal — in a private setting — when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals’ custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not.” Zing!

Below is the full statement:

There has been much misinformation and factual inaccuracy in the reporting on the charges against Devyani Khobragade. It is important to correct these inaccuracies because they are misleading people and creating an inflammatory atmosphere on an unfounded basis. Although I am quite limited in my role as a prosecutor in what I can say, which in many ways constrains my ability here to explain the case to the extent I would like, I can nevertheless make sure the public record is clearer than it has been thus far.

First, Ms. Khobragade was charged based on conduct, as is alleged in the Complaint, that shows she clearly tried to evade U.S. law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers. Not only did she try to evade the law, but as further alleged, she caused the victim and her spouse to attest to false documents and be a part of her scheme to lie to U.S. government officials. So it is alleged not merely that she sought to evade the law, but that she affirmatively created false documents and went ahead with lying to the U.S. government about what she was doing. One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country. One wonders even more pointedly whether any government would not take action regarding that alleged conduct where the purpose of the scheme was to unfairly treat a domestic worker in ways that violate the law. And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?

Second, as the alleged conduct of Ms. Khobragade makes clear, there can be no plausible claim that this case was somehow unexpected or an injustice. Indeed, the law is clearly set forth on the State Department website. Further, there have been other public cases in the United States involving other countries, and some involving India, where the mistreatment of domestic workers by diplomats or consular officers was charged criminally, and there have been civil suits as well. In fact, the Indian government itself has been aware of this legal issue, and that its diplomats and consular officers were at risk of violating the law. The question then may be asked: Is it for U.S. prosecutors to look the other way, ignore the law and the civil rights of victims (again, here an Indian national), or is it the responsibility of the diplomats and consular officers and their government to make sure the law is observed?

Third, Ms. Khobragade, the Deputy General Consul for Political, Economic, Commercial and Women’s Affairs, is alleged to have treated this victim illegally in numerous ways by paying her far below minimum wage, despite her child care responsibilities and many household duties, such that it was not a legal wage. The victim is also alleged to have worked far more than the 40 hours per week she was contracted to work, and which exceeded the maximum hour limit set forth in the visa application. Ms. Khobragade, as the Complaint charges, created a second contract that was not to be revealed to the U.S. government, that changed the amount to be paid to far below minimum wage, deleted the required language protecting the victim from other forms of exploitation and abuse, and also deleted language that stated that Ms. Khobragade agreed to “abide by all Federal, state, and local laws in the U.S.” As the Complaint states, these are only “in part” the facts, and there are other facts regarding the treatment of the victim – that were not consistent with the law or the representations made by Ms. Khobragade — that caused this Office and the State Department, to take legal action.

Fourth, as to Ms. Khobragade’s arrest by State Department agents, this is a prosecutor’s office in charge of prosecution, not the arrest or custody, of the defendant, and therefore those questions may be better referred to other agencies. I will address these issues based on the facts as I understand them. Ms. Khobragade was accorded courtesies well beyond what other defendants, most of whom are American citizens, are accorded. She was not, as has been incorrectly reported, arrested in front of her children. The agents arrested her in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained. In fact, the arresting officers did not even seize her phone as they normally would have. Instead, they offered her the opportunity to make numerous calls to arrange personal matters and contact whomever she needed, including allowing her to arrange for child care. This lasted approximately two hours. Because it was cold outside, the agents let her make those calls from their car and even brought her coffee and offered to get her food. It is true that she was fully searched by a female Deputy Marshal — in a private setting — when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals’ custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself. This is in the interests of everyone’s safety.

Fifth, as has been reported, the victim’s family has been brought to the United States. As also has been reported, legal process was started in India against the victim, attempting to silence her, and attempts were made to compel her to return to India. Further, the Victim’s family reportedly was confronted in numerous ways regarding this case. Speculation about why the family was brought here has been rampant and incorrect. Some focus should perhaps be put on why it was necessary to evacuate the family and what actions were taken in India vis-à-vis them. This Office and the Justice Department are compelled to make sure that victims, witnesses and their families are safe and secure while cases are pending.

Finally, this Office’s sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law – no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.

The comments directed at Mr. Bharara on Indian media have turned nasty, a sampling here and here, but much worse on social media.

In early December 49 Russian Diplomats/Spouses Charged With Picking Uncle Sam’s Pocket in Medicaid Scam. That was Mr. Bharara’s office.  He, by, the way, has a 77-0 record in insider trading cases in his office’s campaign to root out illegal conduct on Wall Street. According to NYT, the government’s marquee conviction came in 2011, when a jury found the billionaire hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam guilty of insider trading.  And don’t forget Rajat Gupta, ex-director of Goldman Sachs and ex-head of consulting at McKinsey & Co., who was sentenced to two years in prison.

In 2011, Mr. Bharara, the man who makes Wall Street tremble, was India Abroad Person of the Year 2011, an event attended by who’s who of the Diaspora and India.

It looks like in 2013, Mr. Bharara is the man who makes Embassy Row tremble.

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