At SEC enforcement unit, storied chief's son makes a name for himself

Tom Sporkin, left, shows his father a magazine cover that features his work.
Tom Sporkin, left, shows his father a magazine cover that features his work. (Sarah L. Voisin - Washington Post)
By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It was New Year's Eve when Robert Khuzami, the enforcement director of the Securities and Exchange Commission, called an agency lawyer named Thomas Sporkin into his office to tell him he won a high-profile new job overseeing how the SEC screens tips and other information that could lead to legal action.

After the meeting, Sporkin left the fifth-floor office, passing a photograph of his father, and walked to his own office, where he called his dad. It didn't take long for Stanley Sporkin to start telling his son what he ought to do with his new job. "Every day I'm with him, he tells me what I need to do," Thomas Sporkin said.

Stanley Sporkin, 78, perhaps the most famous SEC enforcement director, and Thomas "Tommy" Sporkin, 42, a rising star, are a unique pair in the agency's history. Their relationship is in many ways typical of any dad and son in the same field, but it's also a way to look at the ebb and flow of the SEC over the years. The father helped turn the enforcement division into a force to be reckoned with. After years of setbacks and criticism for the unit, the son is now trying to help transform it once again.

"The Sporkin family is to SEC enforcement what the Manning family is to NFL football," said Russell Ryan, a securities lawyer who shared an office with the younger Sporkin in the 1990s.

A few days after his son got the job, the elder Sporkin was on the line with Khuzami talking shop when he began to choke up a bit. He profusely thanked Khuzami, telling him what pleasure it brings for a father to see his son follow in his footsteps. Khuzami told Sporkin that his son won the position based on the merits.

"Stan was clearly very affected, and quite happy, and proud, and a little nostalgic, and a little verklempt -- all wrapped up into one," Khuzami recalled, using a Yiddish word roughly meaning choked up.

Tommy Sporkin's job title is officially chief of the Office of Market Intelligence, one of the key new units created to reinvigorate SEC efforts at pursuing cases of financial crime. Time will tell if the son will follow in all of his father's footsteps by one day becoming enforcement director himself. But he slowly has been able to make his own way.

"Coming in as the son of the most famous enforcement director was probably not an easy thing to do," said William McLucas, the head of the securities practice of the prominent law firm WilmerHale in Washington.

McLucas has seen both father and son in action. When the older man was head of the division in the 1970s, McLucas was a green SEC enforcement lawyer and Sporkin was leading an overhaul of the division, advocating new ways to punish companies accused of wrongdoing, and pushing the limits of accepted law to pursue corporate malfeasance.

In 1993, McLucas was head of the enforcement division when Thomas Sporkin joined with his law degree from American University fresh in hand. "Tommy came in as a kid lawyer and was quiet," he said. "Tommy's now at the point where he's coming into his own and having some fun."

McLucas added: "I always say that when people in the defense bar, who were also working a generation ago, get subpoenas and letters and see the last name Sporkin, they must think, 'Oh, my God, not again.' "

A Sporkin thing

Becoming a lawyer -- and focusing on securities law -- was a way for Tommy Sporkin to get to know his dad better. As a child, he tried to understand what his father was always doing at the agency until late at night.

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