Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York famously fired by Donald Trump, inspired a character on Showtime’s Billions (Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades). So how about a leading man based on New York attorney general and longtime Trump nemesis Eric Schneiderman? “I was in Los Angeles doing fundraising, and some showrunner took an interest in our Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit,” he says.
Nothing came of the meeting, but lately, the crusading AG, in his job since 2011, has been immersed in film and TV nevertheless: On Feb. 11, he dropped a bombshell lawsuit against The Weinstein Co. that torpedoed an imminent $500 million sale to a group headed by billionaire Ron Burkle and Obama administration alum Maria Contreras-Sweet. And, since his jurisdiction includes Wall Street, he’s keeping an eye on net neutrality and Disney’s proposed purchase of Fox assets.
The 63-year-old divorced father of a 25-year-old daughter, Catherine, oversees a staff of 1,850, including 700 lawyers, and invited THR to his downtown Manhattan office with a view of the Freedom Tower to discuss his expansive case file.
You took some heat when your suit against The Weinstein Co. was blamed for scuttling the $500 million Burkle-backed deal to buy the company. Any regrets?
No. We had all the deal documents. There was no victims fund beyond the insurance policy. We met with them. Got the deal back on track and started drafting documents reflecting a fund. Then they discovered additional liabilities they had not been aware of and pulled out of a deal.
Has the Weinstein bankruptcy had any impact on your lawsuit? And will any liability pass on to whoever acquires the company’s assets?
Our major focus was not on monetary damages. The victims have their own lawyers, and we did succeed in an effort to persuade the bankruptcy trustee to appoint victims to two of the five slots on the creditors committee. Our investigation is focused largely on corporate malfeasance and a hostile work environment. Sex abuse and harassment is a form of sex discrimination. And our Civil Rights Bureau has looked at big companies before with hostile work environments. This one has more sordid details, but it’s an area of the law we know well. So we’ve been working to try to ensure that enablers of bad conduct are not unjustly enriched by this process. We got The Weinstein Co. to release all past employees from nondisclosure agreements. And we are now trying to reach out to those employees and say, “Please contact our office. You’re now free to speak. But that doesn’t do us any good if you don’t speak up.” We’ve spoken with the stalking horse purchaser, Lantern, and look forward to working with them as they go forward.
You were pretty emphatic in your lawsuit that former COO David Glasser should not be running a new company, as the Burkle-backed group had planned. What did you find in terms of complicity?
This is an ongoing investigation, so I don’t want to get into too many details. But Mr. Glasser, among his other responsibilities, was supervising the human resources department, which is where numerous complaints about Mr. Weinstein’s conduct went. And there was not a single investigation of any of these complaints during this extended period of time. A lot of the complainants had their complaints negotiated away and signed nondisclosure agreements. So, it was not the way a company should be running.
Burkle is said to be backing the Lantern bid. If he ultimately owns the company and hires David Glasser to be the COO of Weinstein 2.0 a year from now, what recourse would you have?
It’s hard to say. It’s not clear that they will be the purchasers. So it’s all subject to the bankruptcy process and approval by the court. They indicated that they want to make a clean break with the past. And I think that’s the smart thing to do. This company is something that opened a lot of people’s eyes to not just the individual conduct of one bad actor, but to a corporate culture of enabling and complicity. This conversation about that is going far beyond the entertainment industry. This conversation is happening in finance and publishing and law. Everywhere.
You’ve previously noted that Harvey Weinstein’s personnel file was missing. Has it been located?
We’re working on getting that. There was a bit of disruption to our investigation. The company was running out of money, and some of the money was going to pay for a document production vendor that was providing a platform for reviewing and producing corporate documents. But we’ve gotten that straightened out. They fired the law firm [Barnes & Thornburg] that was supposed to be responding to our investigation. For reasons we don’t know. [They] hired a new firm and charged them with revisiting a request [we made] because some of the things we had asked for were not fully produced. We think we will locate a personnel file.
There’s a joke in Hollywood that the TWC email server is more valuable than the company’s film library because of the high-profile people it could implicate. Who has possession of the server? Have you tried to access it?
The Weinstein Co. does have possession of it. And there are lawyers who are responding to our request and there are a different group of lawyers who are handling the bankruptcy proceeding, and they’re using the server for both purposes. But we have a good sense of the working relationship we have with the new lawyers responding to our investigation. And we think that they’re being more conscientiously compliant with our subpoenas and our requests than the previous firm.
Gov. Cuomo has formally requested you look into Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s 2015 investigation of Weinstein. What is the status of that investigation?
I can’t really comment on the details. The governor issued a statement about it, and it has to be followed up with a referral to our office under Section B, the Executive Law, so that we have the power to subpoena documents and call witnesses. And we’ll engage with the governor’s staff on getting that done and then move ahead.
State AGs have the ability to go to court to try to block mergers. Given Trump’s coziness with Rupert Murdoch, if the Justice Department doesn’t stand up to the Fox-Disney deal as it has with the AT&T-DirecTV tie-up, could you envision your office suing to enjoin it?
These are challenging cases. The law is tough in this area. We’ve worked with the U.S. Justice Department on cases. We’ve occasionally parted ways with them, and we’ll wait to see what happens. They took a more aggressive posture on Time Warner than people predicted. So, it’s not clear to me what direction they might go with this, but there is concurrent state jurisdiction, and our counterparts and our office can use it if we have to.
You’ve been pretty vocal in opposition to the net neutrality repeal by the FCC. What legal steps can be taken at the state level?
We think we have strong arguments that a repeal was done improperly and should be struck down. Notably, we discovered as a part of our work on this that a huge portion of the public comments that were submitted as part of the rule-making process were submitted by people who either had identities stolen or they were bots. So, we’re going to be fighting them in court. The Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law, requires the FCC and other federal agencies not to act arbitrarily and capriciously and to follow all their internal rules and guidelines. If you’re going to make a dramatic change in law you have to have a justification from the last time it was revisited. They don’t have that.
You sued and beat Trump on claims that Trump University defrauded students. How exhausting was that experience?
I have obviously not shied away from suing the administration when it does something that I think would hurt people I represent. When I sued him in 2013, I got a preview of what the world saw in his campaign, which was he set up a website to attack me. He sued me for $100 million.
And he called you a political hack.
He did. He went on Twitter rampages. He filed phony ethics complaints against me with affidavits from [Trump attorney] Michael Cohen and people like that (rolls eyes). I had to hire my own lawyer to defend me in front of the State Ethics Commission. And eventually all this stuff against me went away and he ended up having to pay $25 million to the people he ripped off, which the judge in our Trump U case said was “extraordinary.” So, before there was “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco,” I had my “nicknames.” You have to see the whole scorched-earth approach that he brings to litigation and the campaign. I don’t shy away from fighting with him, but I try to keep it on the merits. I’m not out to get him personally. I think their efforts to repeal net neutrality are very harmful. So we’re suing them on that. We successful sued to keep the DACA program going and to stop his anti?Muslim immigration bans. We’ve beaten Scott Pruitt on a variety of his efforts to roll back environmental regulations. It’s just we have a concern about the direction the federal government is taking. If it threatens to hurt the people I represent, I’ll take action. And we’re seeing more and more states and local governments coming along to that point of view.
If the special counsel’s investigation is shut down or Robert Mueller is removed, would your office pick up the probe?
I’m not commenting on any ongoing investigations. There are some things under investigation that may constitute violations of federal laws for which there’s no state counterpart. So, it’s very difficult to say at this point what might happen. I am very hopeful that Mr. Mueller will be allowed to continue and complete his investigation as the overwhelming majority of the American people want.
Could you pursue state charges against Paul Manafort or Michael Flynn if Trump ends up granting them a federal pardon?
It’s hard to say at this point. I don’t want to comment on potential investigations. But I’m very hopeful that the president will allow the legal process to go forward.
You signed a letter to Mark Zuckerberg about concerns over user privacy. Are there potentially criminal issues involved in Facebook’s handling of user data?
We are working with [Massachusetts AG] Maura Healey on an investigation into what happened at Facebook. And we’re in the very early stages of it, but we have been in contact with the folks at Facebook who have said they want to cooperate with us and produce documents. We’re going follow the facts and find out what happen. It’s something we’re going to pursue aggressively.
Do you plan to run again for attorney general this year?
I do. This is certainly the best job I’ve ever had. And this last year or so has been one of the most extraordinary times in the history of this office. It’s really been a remarkable period that I think will be recorded as a time when the constitutional fabric of the United States was tested. And our federalist system of leaving a lot of power at the state level is a check on the federal government. It’s clear that the founders were very wise to create this two-tier structure of having Congress to check on the executive branch but also having states as a check on the federal government. It’s an exciting time to be doing this.
That said, what are your ultimate political ambitions?
Right now, I’m focused on the work I’m doing. Things are so turbulent in American politics now and have become so unpredictable. I am immersed in and invested in the work I’m doing as attorney general and the work I’m doing building up this incredible coalition of state AGs, public interest lawyers, law professors, lawyers who are doing pro bono work that has really formed the core of legal resistance.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.