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Probable new SEC head Mary Jo White is hard on Wall Street, soft on puppies

mary jo white SEC
AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett
Don’t be fooled by her smile. Mary Jo White is one tough cookie.
By Simone Foxman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

US President Barack Obama is expected to tap Mary Jo White to head the Securities Exchange Commission in a press conference this afternoon. White, currently a partner at law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, is best known for her stint as an attorney for the southern district of New York from 1993 to 2002. Obama is probably choosing White for her experience in prosecuting white-collar crime, but she is better known for her work on terrorism. She started her career prosecuting the men who planned to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993 and ended it in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.

The last 20 years in White’s history, particularly her time at the US attorney’s office, scream nothing if not “aggressive.” She relentlessly sought control of cases, even over public criticism from other legal offices in New York and Washington. Her fights in the bureaucracy hint that the SEC under White could be fierce.

Her role as the lead US attorney in Manhattan—the court that takes the lead on prosecuting financial crime—was actually somewhat of a landmark at the time. She was the first woman to take that role and was nominated alongside the first black US district attorney, Zachary W. Carter. At the time of her nomination (paywall), she promised to ramp up her prosecution of civil rights cases, white collar crime, and environmental cases. The court had been criticized for pursuing too few of these cases when she stepped into the role.

A New York Times article published in March 1993 offers a look at White at 44 years old:

Those who know Mary Jo White professionally describe a solid, smart and tough lawyer whom they consider a superb candidate for United States Attorney. Those who know her personally say all of the above and quickly add that she is anything but a legal grind.
“Many lawyers are narrow, she’s not,” James C. Goodale, a friend and former law partner of Ms. White’s, said yesterday, citing her desire to be in the stands at Yankee Stadium as much as to be in a law library.

Another profile published six months later is more telling (paywall):

Colleagues also note that Ms. White has begun investigations into areas, like shoddy asbestos inspection in schools and Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s misrepresentation of its finances, that could have been left to state authorities. That approach contrasts with the more conservative philosophy of many Federal prosecutors, who are reluctant to inject the Federal Government into matters they see as primarily the domain of state prosecutors.

In 1997, she forcefully took over a case on insider trading (paywall) after the Manhattan district attorney decided to prosecute it, despite apparently showing little interest before. This early evidence suggests that White could push to make the SEC more aggressive amid continuing distrust of the financial world generated by the financial crisis.

A Democratic appointment under former US president Bill Clinton, she stepped down after Republican George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000. She stayed on for months after his inauguration in order to tie up her prosecution (paywall) of four men accused of conspiring to blow up four US embassies in 1998, and then because of attacks on the World Trade Center. She spent her final months in office pressing for her office to retain control of the prosecution of any cases that would arise from the September 11 attacks. She failed.

For the next decade, as a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, White probably drove the law firm’s profits by taking on a rash of companies’ internal investigations. She also frequently weighed in on various issues in the press—everything from the suspension of football players incriminated in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal to how her background as a US attorney helped her defend and prosecute Wall Street clients in private practice.

That said, her background defending investment bankers suggests that she won’t be completely irascible in her scrutiny of the financial world. In 2012 she cautioned a panel about prosecuting Wall Street, “We must distinguish what is criminal from what is reckless behavior or bad business decisions and not bow to the frenzy…And I worry the frenzy overrides reason and judgment sometimes.”

Although it’s unlikely to play into her role at the SEC, it’s worth noting that White has a side interest: animals. In 2011, White was elected Chair of the Board for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). She relinquished the post a year later.

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