President Barack Obama on Thursday nominated former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, picking a tough enforcement hand who more recently has defended Wall Street figures.
White, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York known for prosecuting terrorists and mob bosses, would become the third consecutive woman to hold the post.
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"We need to keep going after irresponsible behavior in the financial industry so that taxpayers don't pay the price. I am absolutely confident that Mary Jo has the experience and the resolve to tackle these complex issues and to protect the American people in a way that is smart and in a way that is fair," Obama said in announcing the nomination.
The pick quickly drew praise from both Wall Street and reform advocates who say White would ably steer the powerful agency that plays a key role in overseeing U.S. financial markets.
However, White does not have a deep securities policy background, and in her recent private practice work she represented major players in the financial crisis, including former Bank of America Corp Chief Executive Ken Lewis.
The president also renominated Richard Cordray to continue as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the U.S. watchdog for consumer products such as mortgages and student loans.
New York's Charles Schumer, a Democrat who is part of the Senate leadership and sits on the powerful Senate Banking Committee, praised White's reputation as a tough-as-nails prosecutor and predicted she will "easily be confirmed."
A swift confirmation for White could help the SEC speed up its implementation of the dozens of unfinished rules required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.
White would succeed current SEC Chairman Elisse Walter, a Democratic commissioner who took over in December after predecessor Mary Schapiro stepped down.
Schapiro's departure left the commission divided between two Democrats and two Republicans, and observers said the split could make it nearly impossible to complete controversial rules, such as the Volcker Rule, which bans banks from proprietary trading.
White, now a respected white-collar defense attorney with the law firm Debevoise and Plimpton, was the only woman in the 200-year history of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York to serve in the top spot there.
She was in office from 1993 through to 2002, during a tumultuous time starting with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and then later, the infamous Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.
Under her watch, the U.S. Attorney's office won about 35 convictions of militant Muslims charged with plotting against Americans.
"I view her as an incredibly well-regarded lawyer who has spent a significant amount of time as a partner at Debevoise representing companies and individuals in high-profile securities related matters," said Cheryl Scarboro, the former head of the SEC's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act unit and now a partner with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
As a defense attorney, White has been involved in high-profile SEC and Justice Department cases.
She conducted an internal investigation into corruption at Siemens AG that resulted in a record settlement for the German engineering conglomerate. She also represented healthcare provider HCA Holdings Inc in an insider-trading investigation, according to her online biography.
She has also represented JPMorgan Chase & Co in major matters related to the financial crisis, as well as former Bank of America CEO Lewis over a civil lawsuit in connection with Bank of America's acquisition of Merrill Lynch.
It is unclear whether her defense of Wall Street clients could prove troublesome for her during the U.S. Senate confirmation process. But Wall Street champions and critics both had positive takes on White.
"I have met Mary Jo White, and anyone who knows her at all - extremely capable, competent, bright, tough, and a perfect choice," JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said in an interview on Thursday with Fox Business News from Davos.
Neil Barofsky, who was hired as an assistant U.S. attorney by White in 2000 and went on to become the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, called Obama's pick an "inspired choice."
"I expect that she will be unfazed by the intimidation tactics of the usual suspects in Washington - be they antagonistic members of Congress, captured officials from other parts of government or those who so relentlessly push the agendas of the largest banks," Barofsky said.
Like Schapiro, White has previously been identified as a political independent. Unlike Schapiro, White has not worked as a Wall Street regulator.
However, White's husband, John White, served as the director of the SEC's Corporation Finance division, which oversees public company disclosures, from 2006 to 2008.
Known for a legendary work ethic and a fondness for beer and baseball, White also developed a reputation as a ferocious basketball player when in the U.S. Attorney's office, even though she stands around 5 feet tall.
Former SEC enforcement director William McLucas said it was an "excellent sign" that the White House could get someone of her caliber to take the position. "There is no one I know that works harder," McLucas said.
James Cox, a professor of law at Duke University who has served with White on various panels, said White will be a very different SEC chairman than Schapiro.
"Mary Schapiro was a politician," Cox said. Mary Jo White, by contrast, he said, will be more blunt and direct. "She can unpack somebody's argument really quickly."
As for Cordray, he has already faced some uphill battles with Republicans in Congress.
Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, was appointed in January 2012 while Congress was in recess after Republicans who were wary of the CFPB's independence blocked his nomination.
The controversial appointment limited the amount of time Cordray could serve without going through a full confirmation process.
The CFPB has drawn criticism from Republicans and business groups, who say it is virtually unchecked and will hurt lending and put small banks out of business.
Asked whether the administration foresees any problems getting Cordray confirmed, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he did not expect any objections to him "on substance."
"He is absolutely the right person for the job," Carney said. He said earlier obstacles to Cordray's nomination had been based on "political considerations" from lawmakers who had opposed the creation of the financial protection board.
Some political observers, however, said Thursday that any fights to come will not be about Cordray personally, but about the overall structure of the CFPB itself.
"Issues larger than his handling of the bureau will probably dictate that," said Jason Rosenstock, the director of government relations at ML Strategies.