When 46-year-old Punjab, India-born U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara arrested 39-year-old Indian envoy Devyani Khobragade outside her daughter’s school Dec. 12, 2013, U.S.Indian relations headed south. Bharara charged her with U.S. visa fraud for stating on her application she’d pay her Indian nanny going New York wages. Forced to leave the U.S. Jan. 10 without her four and seven-year-old daughters, Devyani expressed “immense stress” over the separation from her children and U.S. citizen husband. Charged with working her housekeeper over 100 hours a week, paying her as little as $1.22 an hour, Preet took out his sledgehammer charging the young attaché with visa fraud. Instead of resolving the matter amicably behind-the-scenes, perhaps cutting a plea deal and fining her appropriately, Preet violated everything known about common sense
Throwing the book at Khobragade, Bharara showed he doesn’t make exceptions for his ex-countrymen or women, including Wall Street, where he prosecuted the Gallean Group, locking-up Raj Rajartnam, Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar for insider trading. While there’s nothing wrong with Manhattan’s U.S. Atty. going after Wall Street, organized crime or public corruption, there ‘s something out-of-whack hitting Khobragade with a ton of bricks. “I wonder if I will be able to ever reunite with my family, my husband, my little kids. I miss them,” said Devyani, telling the public how Preet hit her family with a wrecking ball. Whatever Preet says about Khobragade’s case, it’s beyond the pale to prosecute her to the fullest extent of the law, when the matter could have been resolved amicably. Even Devyani,’s housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, wants all charges dropped.
Preet’s problem indicting the junior Indian attaché stems from not considering the repercussions to U.S.-Indian relations. Financial disputes usually resolve themselves in out-of-court settlements or small claims court, certainly not the federal courts. “What if my children choose to study and work in the U.S? What if I can never return to the U.S., which I cannot now. Does it mean we will never be able to live together as a family again?” asked Khorbragade, perhaps overstating her case but raising unmistakable ethical issues for Bharara. Whether or not Khobragade violated her visa application, there are various infractions ranging in forgivability. Underpaying a nanny doesn’t rise to the level of violence, drug trafficking, larceny or any other white or blue-collar criminal offense. While Khobragade received diplomatic immunity last week, Preet decided to go ahead with the indictment.
Preet’s moves against Khorbragade has already caused the Indian government to remove security barriers around the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, preventing ex-pats without diplomatic papers from using the embassy’s leisure center. Ordering a U.S. diplomatic employee in New Delhi out of India, the tit-for-tit retaliation continues because of Preet’s ill-advised decision to prosecute Khobragade. Reacting to criticism about Khobragade, Preet has dug in his heels, moving ahead with the visa fraud indictment. Whatever good Preet’s done to root out organized crime, Wall Street shenanigans or other types of crime, Khobragade’s case shows that he lacks the common sense to head up the U.S. Atty.’s Office in the Southern District of New York. Going after Khobragade with the same ferocity as Wall Street malfeasance, public corruption, financial scandals or organized crime makes no sense.
Indian officials expressed appropriate outrage over Preet’s overkill, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry to issue a veiled apology. “I have come to India but my stand still needs to be vindicated. And of course, I have been separated from my family, and I am under immense stress for my children,” said Khobrade, expressing the real problem with the government’s case: Devyani’s crime of underpaying her nanny doesn’t fit the punishment. In any other legal context, separating a mother from her children would require the state’s intervention with charges of child abuse of neglect. Forcing Khobragade to leave the country to avoid prosecution for underpaying her housekeeper violates every know principle of American jurisprudence. Turning an easily resolvable situation into a federal case antagonizing a major U.S. ally and trading partner shows Preet’s incompetent management.
Khobragade’s financial dispute with her nanny should not have been acted upon by Manhattan’s U.S. Attorney. Allowing federal prosecutors to sabotage U.S.-Indian relations—no matter how justified—sets a dangerous precedent. Only the U.S. State Department should be in charge of setting foreign relations. Had Preet exercised some restraint and practical judgment, he would have resolved Devyani’s issue out of the federal courts. Causing a row with a foreign government goes beyond the pay grade of federal prosecutors. Interfering with U.S.-foreign relations transcends Khobragade’s minor infractions. “I spoke to my kids for hours last night, and that are already missing me. The four-year-old asked me, ‘Mommy when will you be back home’ and I have no answer,” said Devyani, showing the urgency for either Kerry or President Barack Obama to intervene.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.