At a press conference earlier today, President Barack Obama nominated former U.S. attorney attorney Mary Jo White to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). White's nomination is widely seen as an attempt to repair the image of the SEC, which has recently fielded accusations of being soft on Wall Street. If confirmed by the Senate, White would become the first prosecutor to lead the regulatory agency.
But then, White has a record built on many firsts. After graduating first in her class at Columbia University law school, she later spent almost a decade as the first female U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York (Manhattan), becoming known as a tough prosecutor with expertise in white-collar crime.
As acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, White had led the prosecution of mafia boss John Gotti, who in 1992 was convicted for murder and racketeering. In 1993, former President Bill Clinton appointed White U.S. attorney. Throughout the next decade, she won convictions of white-collar criminals and terrorists – including Ramzi Yousef, who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. During 2000, White led a historic securities fraud prosecution that swept up members of all five of New York's main mafia families. And, despite the nomination by Clinton, White reportedly investigated the President's pardon of oil trader Mark Rich, and refused to approve it.
Now 65, White has spent the past 10 years at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, where she currently heads the litigation department. As a Debevoise partner, White has switched from her role of prosecuting alleged white-collar criminals to defending them – for instance, defending Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis against claims that he misled investors during the bank's merger with Merrill Lynch. White's other clients include former Goldman board member Rajat Gupta (whom White helped defend against insider trading charges) and Time Warner (in a suit filed by Donald Trump). Formerly a director of the Nasdaq stock exchange, White has also worked for JPMorgan and the Morgan Stanley board.
According to sources, the White House hopes White's background will help her put into place the President's plans to crack down on Wall Street. Senator Charles Schumer has described White as a “fearless, tough-as-nails prosecutor with the knowledge of industry to keep up with the markets' swift innovation”; President Obama, for his part, has said: “Mary Jo does not intimidate easily, and that's important because she's got a big job ahead of her.”
If confirmed by the Senate, White would take over the SEC from interim chairwoman Elisse Walter, who has served ever since former SEC chair Mary Schapiro resigned in December. During Shapiro’s tenure, the SEC sued major Wall Street banks including JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, and Goldman Sachs, obtaining sizable settlements. But the SEC received criticism from some who pointed out that no senior executives were held accountable for last decade's financial crisis and opined that the banks' penalties were minor compared to their revenues. Experts expect White's SEC to be much tougher in enforcing finance reform.