Obama: ‘You don’t want to mess with Mary Jo.’ Here’s why.

Mary Joe White speaks as President Barack Obama listens in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, after he...
Mary Joe White speaks as President Barack Obama listens in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, after he...
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

President Obama introduced Mary Jo White as his nominee to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission Thursday, and by choosing a tough former federal prosecutor to chair the agency, signaled an intent to crack down on Wall Street crime in his second term.

“You don’t want to mess with Mary Jo,” Obama said. And here’s why:

  • White spent more than a decade as a U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York,  a top perch for federal law enforcement officers. During her tenure beginning under President Clinton, she won convictions against the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombers, and mob boss John Gotti, among others.
  • Obama’s choice of a former prosecutor has Wall Street thinking the days of taxpayer-funded bailouts are over–and pleases critics who’ve charged the president with being too soft on the major players in the 2008 financial meltdown. As Obama said while introducing White on Thursday, “It’s not enough to change the law. We also need cops on the beat to enforce the law.” If confirmed, she’d be the first former prosecutor to chair the SEC.
  • White has an independent streak. As the head of the “Sovereign District of New York,” as its staff has joked for decades, White, in her own words, “had a reputation of being fairly autonomous also and not being afraid to rattle cages to get things done,” according to an interview she did for a 2002 PBS “Frontline” documentary.
  • White served as director of the NASDAQ stock exchange, as well as on its executive, audit and policy committees.
  • She broke ground as the first–and to date, only–woman to have served as a U.S. attorney for the SDNY. She joins Obama’s Cabinet at a time when he’s been under heavy criticism for appointing a majority of white men to top Cabinet spots.

Some questions remain as to how White would lead the SEC, chiefly regarding her post as the head of litigation at the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, where she has been defending major corporate clients for the past decade. In her Rolodex of clients: Bank of America Chief Executive Ken Lewis, along with Morgan Stanley, which in 2005 hired her to vet prospective CEO John Mack. The shift to the private sector placed her squarely on both the prosecution and defense in white collar cases throughout her career.

Also in question: As part of a February 2012 panel at New York University, White expressed doubts about the extent to which banks committed crimes preceding the 2008 financial meltdown. “You should be aggressive where there is a crime,” she said at the event, adding that prosecutors must not “fail to distinguish what is actually criminal and what is just mistaken behavior, what is even reckless risk-taking, and not bow to the frenzy.”

White said Thursday that she looked forward to working “to fulfill the agency’s mission to protect investors, and to ensure the strength, efficiency, and the transparency of our capital markets.”

“The SEC, long a vital and positive force for the markets, has a lot of hard and important work ahead of it,” White said. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee, predicted an easy Senate confirmation ahead.


Obama: 'You don't want to mess with Mary Jo.' Here's why.