Feb 042013
 

Here’s who would be better than President Obama’s pick to head the Securities and Exchange Commission: Almost anybody.

Couldn’t this administration find somebody who has not been spending her time defending too-big-to-fail banks, acting as an apologist for them, and whose law firm was paid to advise the government on the bailout?

That’s a description of Mary Jo White, most recently of the elite Debevoise & Plimpton law firm, one-time U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York…. and now the President’s choice to head the SEC.

There’s a long list of qualified people Obama might have chosen if he wanted to go outside the government-financial complex whose members have dominated economic policy, people with credible experience who have honed a critical perspective on the financial industry.

That list would start with Neil Barofsky, the former prosecutor who served as a tough special inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as the taxpayer-funded bailout. It would also include Bill Black,who helped expose congressional corruption as a fearless federal regulator during the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, now a University of Kansas City-Missouri law professor and white-collar crime expert – and consistent critic of the Obama administration’s failure to hold bankers accountable. High on the list would be Eliot Spitzer, the one-time attorney general of New York and television commentator and a sharp thorn in the side of bankers and the politicians who protect them. Christy Romero who also be on the list. Like White, she worked as a lawyer at an elite firm, but as the current special inspector general for the bailout she has been a fierce advocate for taxpayers.

Mary Jo White, according to the president, is “tough as nails.” At one time White was a hell of a prosecutor. When she was U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, though she prosecuted no major bank executives, she won convictions of the New York Mob boss known as Dapper Dan, John Gotti, and the World Trade Center bombers.

That was before she followed the well-worn path from public prosecutor to elite lawyer, joining the white-shoe law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, where the average partner makes $2.1 million a year.

That was before she got cozy with J.P. Dimon and J.P Morgan, representing them in the widely criticized settlement of foreclosure fraud charges in a case involving 49 state attorneys general, the Feds and the too big to fail banks.

That was before representing Bank of America’s Ken Lewis on fraud charges and Morgan Stanley’s John Mack in an SEC insider-trading investigation.

Once she got through the revolving door, she worked the system on behalf of her clients, becoming a consummate well-paid insider in the Wall Street-Washington power nexus. In the process of strenuously protecting Mack from an interview at the SEC, White got herself into the middle of a full-fledged scandal, using her clout to help get a whistleblower at the federal agency canned, according to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi. In addition, White’s husband is another veteran of the revolving-door, working as a top SEC official as well under previous do-nothing SEC commissioner Christopher Cox, in between stints as a bankers’ lawyer.

One fact that tells you al you need to know about what’s wrong with White as a banking enforcer is that her former client, Jamie Dimon told Fox Business News that White was “perfect” for the SEC job.

White might have made a better candidate to protect investors at the SEC if, since the bailout, she had expressed one iota concern about bankers’ excess, fraud or recklessness that led to the financial collapse.

Instead, White has expressed concern about prosecutors unfairly targeting bankers to get scalps to feed the angry public’s thirst for justice. In a legal brief on Lewis’ behalf, White wrote: “Some have looked to assign blame for every aspect of the financial crisis…This case is a product of that dynamic and does not withstand legal or factual scrutiny.”

In remarks at a New York University Law School event last year, White said: “You should be aggressive where there is a crime,” but prosecutors shouldn’t “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.”

Her law firm meanwhile was itself cashing in on the bailout, receiving a contract worth $159,175 as one of 16 law firms Treasury hired to work on the bailout, American Lawyer reported.

White obviously lives in a far different world from most Americans, who are still rankled that so few bankers have been held accountable for the financial collapse.

Maybe it’s understandable that in her role as defender of too-big-to-fail bankers, she didn’t express much empathy for investors who lost savings, for cities and towns ravaged by foreclosure or workers laid off in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

And it probably wouldn’t have endeared her to her clients if she had expressed outrage at the bankers’ epic greed and recklessness that led them to wreck our economy.

In her new job, she will face many tough challenges; overseeing implementation of many of the Dodd-Frank financial reform’s unfinished regulations, and convincing a deficit-obsessed Congress and president to beef up staffing and salaries at her chronically underfunded agency so that it can compete with her former colleagues at the  fancy law firms. It’s hard to imagine White rising to this challenge, especially since after her SEC tenure she’ll probably head back to a big Wall Street firm.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with representing bankers – or mob bosses. Our legal system works best when both sides have strong, aggressive advocates. White made her choice to leave the relatively poorly paid public sector to join a private firm and provide bankers a “tough as nails” defense lawyer. But does that really qualify her as the best person to lead the SEC, an agency already reeling from a lack of credibility for not pursuing fraud in the financial sector aggressively enough? Don’t investors and taxpayers deserve protection from somebody whose primary concerns since the bailout haven’t been profiting from it and keeping bankers comfortable?

 

 

About Martin Berg

Martin Berg, WheresOurMoney.org editor, is a veteran journalist.

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