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President Obama has tapped a former prosecutor to take over at the Securities and Exchange Commission. That's a first. Mary Jo White has a record of high-profile convictions as a U.S. attorney in Manhattan and if she's confirmed, she would be the top cop on Wall Street.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You don't want to mess with Mary Jo. As one former SEC chairman said, Mary Jo does not intimidate easily.
BLOCK: NPR's Ailsa Chang reports that White has a no-nonsense reputation, but little is known about her views on financial regulation.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The Securities and Exchange Commission took a lot of heat for missing early clues about the financial crisis and Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. So in nominating someone like Mary Jo White, the White House is sending a message to Wall Street, watch yourself now or you will pay. White herself has said it: she's not one to back down.
MARY JO WHITE: Your job is to do the right thing in every situation. And I guess the phrase is that you, you know, you investigate and you prosecute without fear or favor.
CHANG: That's White talking about her former role as a U.S. attorney when she sat down for an interview two years ago with New York City's public radio station WNYC. She won fame prosecuting terrorists like Ramzi Yousef for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and mobsters like John Gotti. But White said, when it comes to Wall Street, law enforcement can deter misconduct there more than anywhere else.
WHITE: You have a group of people and an industry that pays a lot of attention to what enforcement actions are brought in what areas. You know, what kinds of things get investigated, people pay attention to; what kinds of things get charged, people pay attention on Wall Street. So I think uniquely white-collar crime is susceptible to deterrence.
CHANG: But the SEC doesn't just crack down on bad behavior. It also issues regulations. It makes policy, and that's what worries some consumer advocates about White. They say they have no idea where she stands on the issues that have been most vexing to the SEC in the past couple years. Issues like the Volcker Rule, which largely bans banks from trading with their own funds. Barbara Roper is from the Consumer Federation of America.
BARBARA ROPER: I don't think there's ever been a case where we've known as little about an SEC chairman nominee as we do in this case.
CHANG: Part of that may be because White has played for both sides. Many lawyers do that. She's now a defense attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton, where she has represented big fish, like former Bank of America chief Ken Lewis. He was investigated for securities fraud. White's colleagues say the reason she's not readable now is because she's always been so independent. Tony Barkow, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, says White's someone who doesn't bend to political pressure.
TONY BARKOW: When she ran the Southern District of New York, it was one of, kind of, the high points of the office's reputation as the sovereign district of New York. And what that meant is that Mary Jo was fiercely independent even from main justice.
CHANG: Barkow says that reputation for independence was largely why White was chosen to investigate how financier Marc Rich got a last-minute pardon out of Bill Clinton. It meant going head to head with the president who appointed her. And then, when the Justice Department under George W. Bush had suddenly dismissed several U.S. attorneys, White testified on the importance of independence among federal prosecutors.
Preet Bharara, who's the current U.S. attorney in Manhattan, helped lead that congressional investigation. He remembers exchanging emails with White about the matter at 1 a.m. one night.
PREET BHARARA: And then, you know, normal people sleep at that time and sleep for a period of hours. She restarted the email exchange at 4 o'clock in the morning the next day. And it made me think, you know, what is it about this woman that allows her to defy the space-time continuum? Because, clearly, you know, the laws of physics and sleep requirements don't apply to her.
CHANG: At barely 5 feet tall, White is a bundle of energy. She often skips breakfast. And colleagues say she prepares monumentally for nearly everything because she doesn't like leaving anything to chance. But they point out a down-to-earth side too. White will take a beer over a glass of wine and loves to talk baseball, especially the Yankees. That's the thing, her friends say. She's a straightforward person with no hidden agenda, and Washington isn't used to people like that. Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.