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As a federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, Robert Khuzami remained resolute no matter what type of defendant he was prosecuting—whether a terrorist mastermind or President Trump’s personal lawyer.
“Those decisions take place in the context of an institution with a history of objectivity, independence, and pursuing the evidence where it may lead—and not being intimidated,” Khuzami (LAW’83) says from his home in Washington, D.C. “The US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York has a long history of that, so you draw great comfort from those around you and from the institution and its legacy. It’s not like you are out there on your own.”
Khuzami, who will speak at the School of Law Convocation on Sunday morning, May 19, 2019, served a second stint as deputy US attorney and second-in-command for the Southern District from January 2018 until April 12, 2019.
Given his family background, his journey to the podium of a law school graduation was not the likeliest career path. His parents were ballroom dancers who ran an Arthur Murray studio in New York City, and his brother and sister were in the arts as well. “The most basic and probably most accurate explanation is, I didn’t have a damn bit of artistic talent,” says Khuzami.
But he did find his own calling—a pursuit of justice.
“An overwhelming majority of citizens are law-abiding folks who go about their lives playing by the rules, and there’s an obligation on the part of society to acknowledge those people and make sure they’re not fools or dupes for following the rules,” he says. “And one way you do that is to make sure that those who violate the rules, who violate the social contract, are held accountable. Because if you don’t do that, it undermines and corrodes the principles of democracy.”
That was the approach Khuzami took over the last year as he supervised the prosecution of President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who reported to prison May 6, 2019, convicted of campaign finance violations for arranging secret hush-money payments to two women to benefit the president’s 2016 campaign. Khuzami also led the US Securities and Exchange Commission Division of Enforcement from 2009 to 2013, overseeing its restructuring in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and the Bernie Madoff scandal.
In these cases, Khuzami has prosecuted licensed professionals such as lawyers and accountants, “a class of offender I think is troubling,” he says. “A lawyer or an accountant can do more harm with a signature than a guy with a gun.”
In his previous stint with the Southern District of New York, from 1990 to 2002, Khuzami was part of the prosecution team that convicted the late Omar Ahmed Ali Abdel Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik,” and nine codefendants for operating an international terrorist organization responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and planning to blow up the UN and other landmarks.
“The actual or intended consequences were horrific, and that didn’t leave your mind,” Khuzami says of the cases. “It was a special challenge and a source of pride to prove that these cases could be handled in the federal courts. There’s a great pride in wanting to show the world that in the face of these horrific crimes, the United States still adhered to its principles of fairness and justice. Despite what these individuals were planning, they got all the protections of the US judicial system, which includes the right to counsel and the presumption of innocence. And yet we emerged from those cases highly successful.”
Of course, a single prosecution will never end terrorism or reform an entire financial system, he says. Systemic change is the responsibility of the legislative and executive branches, and society as a whole.
“I don’t think any prosecutor ever expects to cure a problem or clean up a sector entirely,” he says. “You hope to just be a contributing factor along with the efforts of others. I don’t remember if it was Smokey the Bear or Woodsy the Owl who said you leave the campsite better than you found it, but I think that’s what the hope is.”
A high-profile prosecution can provide deterrence as well as spur political action. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing prosecution, Khuzami says, there were no further domestic attacks until 9/11. Similarly, the SEC’s actions may have helped spur a different approach by financial institutions to prevent a recurrence of what happened in 2008 and 2009.
That high profile has other uses too, Khuzami says: “If the case you’re working on is in the press and the subject of discussion, it can actually flush out evidence from whistleblowers or other tipsters.”
He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but inevitably it comes with the work he does. “I have an obligation to speak because the public is your constituency,” he says. “You have an obligation to speak out publicly at the time of a plea or sentencing or other significant moment in a case to explain why the case was brought, to deter others, and to show how tax money is being spent. It serves a good purpose.”
Khuzami’s wife and two school-age daughters remained in Washington, D.C., when he decided to rejoin the New York Southern District in 2018, and he left the post in April 2019, as planned, to return to his family full-time. He’s still planning his next career move.
He says it’s an honor to be asked to speak at the School of Law Convocation—“a joyous and happy occasion,” not always the case for a federal prosecutor.
When he’s up at the podium Sunday morning, May 19, 2019, Khuzami will certainly relate to students who’ve struggled to earn their diploma. His father, a Lebanese immigrant with an eighth-grade education, had to take a series of low-level sales jobs, and the fluctuations in his fortunes may have nudged Khuzami toward a more dependable and lucrative profession. But that might not have been the only driving factor for him.
“I spent a lot of time watching the Watergate hearings in the ’70s with my father,” Khuzami says. “He was always very focused on politics and current events, and people used to say he would have made a good lawyer if he’d had the opportunity.”
The School of Law Convocation will be held at the Track & Tennis Center, 100 Ashford St., on Sunday, May 19, 2019, at 9 am.