For all the rumblings about Mary Jo White’s ties to big interests on Wall Street, some of the most revelatory comments that emerged from her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday had to do with her recreational habits.
“She apparently indulged a fondness for motorcycle riding,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said when introducing White at the hearing. “And despite her [short] physical stature, was a fierce competitor in the Women’s Basketball League in New York.”
The hearing was a letdown for anyone expecting fireworks. Not a single senator voiced even slight opposition to President Obama’s pick to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, despite previous concerns by some about her ability to effectively police Wall Street.
For the past decade, White has defended big financial services firms as a top litigator at Debevoise & Plimpton, a credential that comforted lawmakers aligned with Wall Street interests. Prior to that, she put terrorists and frauds behind bars during a nine-year stint as U.S. attorney in Manhattan, a track record often cited by Democratic supporters.
White’s career offered something that pleased partisans in both parties, which is why the Senate banking committee is expected to approve her nomination and pass it along to the full Senate. The vote dates have not been set.
Still, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) pressed White about the revolving-door nature of her career. For about 14 years, she focused on white-collar defense work at Debevoise. She then spent 12 years as a prosecutor before returning to Debevoise in 2002. Brown asked White to assure him she would be on the side of ordinary investors if confirmed.
As a lawyer “you represent different kinds of clients, and you are ethically bound to represent them to the best of your ability, and I have done that,” White said. “That doesn’t mean I embrace the policy thoughts of any of my clients in particular.”
White said her early years at Debevoise did not get in the way of having an aggressive track record as a prosecutor in Manhattan or the Eastern District of New York before that, where she took down mobster John Gotti.
“If I’m confirmed, the American public will be my client, and I will work as zealously as is possible on behalf of them,” White said.
As for concerns that her private-sector work may force her to bow out of many matters before the SEC, White said there was nothing to be worried about. The scope of her recusals is “quite narrow,” she said, and in line with those of past chairmen and other SEC commissioners.
White shared the spotlight with Richard Cordray, who was renominated to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when his term expires at the end of this year. Republicans have long opposed the structure and regulatory reach of the consumer watchdog agency, and Cordray’s nomination may get tripped up in that political battle.
While the bureau’s critics spent time probing Cordray on what they described as the CFPB’s lack of transparency, many acknowledged that they were more familiar with his philosophy than with White’s thinking.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked her about the “too big to jail” issue, revived last week when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told lawmakers that some banks were “so large” that it’s “difficult for us to prosecute them” for fear of undermining the economy.
White said collateral consequences are not taken into account at the SEC, which only handles civil cases. “So at the SEC, there’s no institution too big to charge,” she said.
They’re not too big to charge on the criminal side, either, White said. Although federal prosecutors are instructed to consider the fallout for innocent shareholders, employees and the public from a criminal indictment, she said, that doesn’t necessarily dictate a no decision.
Much of the hearing was devoted to getting White to commit to the pet issues of individual lawmakers, specifically stalled rules tied to the Dodd Frank financial overhaul measure and the JOBS Act, which helps small businesses raise more capital.
While White told every senator that every matter they raised was on her priority list, she said she didn’t want to seem “naive” about the chances of getting everything done at once.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) reassured her.
“I don't think anyone accused you of being naive,” Reed said. “Trust me.”