Bharara’s Deputy Wall Street Cop Brings CV Pairing Citi, Gotti

As a federal prosecutor, he twice failed to win racketeering convictions against the son of the late mob boss John Gotti. As a private lawyer, he helped Citigroup avoid criminal charges in the Libor rate-fixing scandal.

Those moments don’t look like resume-builders for Joon Kim as he takes on a high-powered new job at the Justice Department, in the shadow of Wall Street. But they show why people who know Kim say he’ll thrive as the top deputy to Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Deputy U.S. Attorney Joon Kim. Source: Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP via Bloomberg

Deputy U.S. Attorney Joon Kim. Source: Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP via Bloomberg

Kim’s seven years at a leading New York law firm allowed him to master the intricacies of banking and securities laws. In his earlier stint as a mob prosecutor, he learned how to make difficult cases and to rebound from very public setbacks.

These skills and his longtime friendship with his boss will prove useful for Kim as Bharara enters the final phase of his tenure as U.S. attorney, one that’s shaping up to be among the most consequential since Mary Jo White in the 1990s and Robert Morgenthau in the 1960s.

Kim’s advancement from chief of the criminal division to Bharara’s No. 2 comes at a crucial time for the office, which has long been known for high-profile cases involving insider trading and securities fraud.

The man he’s replacing, Richard Zabel, was at the center of a historic string of insider-trading cases that propelled the office into the limelight. Yet in the last year several convictions have been overturned after a federal appeals court issued a ruling that makes it harder to prosecute cases. That’s raised questions about whether the prosecutors will be as aggressive during Bharara’s remaining time in office, which could end with the new presidential administration in 2017.

Attorneys say Kim’s elevation indicates they plan to push ahead, particularly on issues related to Wall Street.

“This does not signal a shift,” said Lev Dassin of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, who served as acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York before Bharara got the job six years ago. “Yes, he was a line prosecutor known for mob cases, but he did seven years at Cleary Gottlieb on criminal and civil matters,” said Dassin, who worked with Kim at the law firm on many bank-related issues.

Citigroup Probe

Dassin said the Los Angeles-born Kim, a Korean-American who spent part of his childhood in Jordan where his diplomat father was once posted, has a “well-rounded perspective.”

Kim and Bharara declined to be interviewed for this story.

At Cleary, Kim led an internal investigation into allegations of manipulation of the London interbank offered rate, on behalf of Citigroup Inc., and served as the primary point of contact with the Justice Department, said Victor Hou, a colleague at the firm and a former federal prosecutor on the Gotti trial teams. Prosecutors ultimately decided not to bring charges against the third-largest U.S. bank.

Kim returned to the U.S. Attorney’s office as chief counsel in 2013. A year later he became head of the criminal division, whose ranks had been depleted by a three-year hiring freeze. The freeze was finally lifted in February 2014, and the civil and criminal divisions now have more than 200 attorneys, an increase of about 50 in the last year.

Speaking Up

Although Kim, 44, is almost a decade younger than Zabel, former colleagues say he has the self-confidence to stand up to a strong personality like Bharara when he has to.

Benjamin Lawsky, who stepped down in June as superintendent of New York’s Department of Financial Services, also worked on organized crime cases with Kim. He said his former colleague would give honest and frank advice to Bharara.

“He’s not afraid to say, even to a good friend like Preet, that this is a good idea or not a good idea,” Lawsky said.

Kim, a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, Stanford University and Harvard Law School, joined the prosecutor’s office in 2000. In 2002, he moved to the organized crime and terrorism unit.

Bill McMurry, an FBI agent who worked with him on the case that sent Frank Ma, an Asian drug kingpin, to prison for life, recalls the prosecutor’s knack for relating to witnesses, even in trials involving organized crime.

“A lot of them are not the greatest people,” McMurry said. “Joon had the ability to have a connection with them and show a human side. A lot of times, prosecutors lack that ability. They’re black and white, and their view is people only talk to us because they have to.”

He cited a Vietnamese refugee involved in the Ma case who got caught up in gang life and eventually committed murder. “Joon and I spent a lot of time with him, cultivating him,” McMurry said. “We got to a point where the witness really trusted us, opened up to us.”

Chasing Gotti

As an assistant U.S. Attorney, Kim brought almost a hundred cases but is best known for his Gotti prosecutions. In 2004, he was part of a team that won the conviction of Peter Gotti, then the boss of the Gambino crime family. Kim and his colleagues proved that Gotti ordered a failed hit on Mafia turncoat Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano for testimony that had doomed his brother John J. “the Teflon Don” Gotti to die in prison.

Michael McGovern of Ropes & Gray LLP, who prosecuted mobsters a decade ago and worked with Kim on the Peter Gotti case, said his former colleague’s skills were apparent when he delivered the closing argument.

“He methodically dismantled every supposed defense, and he did so in an easy, conversational style,” McGovern said. “He succeeded with jurors because of his common sense and credibility.”

Hung Juries

The trials of John A. “Junior” Gotti, the son of the notorious mob leader, had a different result. All four, including the two prosecuted by Kim, ended with hung juries.

Jeffrey Lichtman, Gotti’s lawyer at his first trial, was not impressed with the government lawyer.

“You can take the real measure of a man when you have a ferociously fought trial with him, as Junior Gotti’s first trial was,” said Lichtman. “Kim was a very young prosecutor then and inexperienced. He certainly attempted to fight back during the trial. Not that it made a difference.”

Yet Kim’s willingness to retry Gotti after that first failure showed that he wasn’t afraid to take on risky cases, said W.S. Wilson Leung, who worked with him in the Southern District of New York before moving on to the Justice Department in San Francisco.

Marc Fernich, one of Junior Gotti’s former defense lawyers, said the prosecutor was never zealous or ideological. “I found him reasonable, fair and temperate to deal with, which was refreshing as a defense lawyer,” Fernich said.

He also earned the respect of some defendants, said McGovern, who recalled that a Gambino crime family soldier, on trial for murder, told Kim he wanted to have a drink with him after the case was over.

“Unfortunately for that guy, he’s going to have to wait decades for his next cocktail,” McGovern said.