The woman who prosecuted Mafia boss John Gotti is about to take over the policing of Wall Street.
Barack Obama nominated former star government prosecutor Mary Jo White to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at a press conference on Thursday. The move comes as the regulator attempts to dodge criticism that it has been soft on Wall Street.
White spent nearly a decade as the US attorney for the southern district of New York – the first, and so far only, woman to be named to the post. Among many high-profile cases, she oversaw the prosecution of Gotti, the mafia boss, as well as the individuals responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
She would become the first prosecutor to lead the SEC in its 80-year history.
"You don't want to mess with Mary Jo," Obama said. "As one former SEC chairman said: 'Mary Jo does not intimidate easily, and that's important because she's got a big job ahead of her.""
While she made her name prosecuting crime bosses, white collar-criminals and terrorists, White is now a partner at attorneys Debevoise and Plimpton, where she leads the white-collar criminal defence practice. She helped defend Bank of America's former boss Ken Lewis against civil suits that followed the bank's disastrous expansions during the financial crisis. White is also a former director of the Nasdaq stock exchange.
Democrat senator Charles Schumer called White a "fearless, tough-as-nails prosecutor with the knowledge of industry to keep up with the markets' swift innovation."
At the same event, Obama renominated Richard Cordray to serve as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Cordray, too, is another former government prosecutor. As attorney general of Ohio he pursued lawsuits against some of the US's largest financial institutions, including AIG and Bank of America.
Cordray was controversially appointed to a limited term by Obama while Congress was in recess. Republican's objected to the manner of his appointment and to the CFPB's mandate. Obama said "there's absolutely no excuse for the Senate to wait any longer" to fully ratify the appointment.
Michael Robinson, executive vice-president of Washington strategic firm Levick, and a former head of public affairs and policy chief at the SEC, said the appointment sent a clear signal to corporate America. "Mary Jo White will go after you hammer and tongs," he said.
"Recently there has been the perception there has been 'someone to blame' for what has befallen the economy. It's not for want of trying that prosecutions have not been brought. Everyone has been investigated."
Fines have been levied against major banks, but no senior executive from a top tier financial institution has been charged with wrongdoing. Robinson said it was unclear if ongoing investigations would result in such actions. But he said that the SEC under White was likely to be much more aggressive.
If approved, White will replace Elisse Walter, a longtime SEC official who took over after Mary Schapiro stepped down as the agency's leader in December.
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