Obama Picks Wall Street Defense Attorney to Lead SEC

Mary Jo White has history working on behalf of high-profile white-collar defendants

President Barack Obama nominated Thursday Mary Jo White to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission.

White, a former U.S. attorney and current white-collar defense lawyer, has a history of defending high-powered defendants against the federal government, but has little experience with financial details.

"The S.E.C. played a critical role in protecting our financial system during the worst of the financial crisis,  but there's much more work to be done to complete the task of reforming Wall Street," Obama said Thursday.

"We need to keep going after irresponsible behavior in the financial industry so that taxpayers don't pay the price," he went on to say. "I am absolutely confident that Mary Jo has the experience and the resolve  to tackle these complex issues and protect the American people in a way that is smart and in a way that is fair."

After leaving the U.S. attorney office of the Southern District of New York, White led the litigation department of the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. She defended controversial clients, such as the former chief executive officer of Bank of America, the executives of Purdue Pharma, an Oxycontin manufacturer, JPMorgan Chase, and the board of Morgan Stanley.

White was the co-counsel for Kenneth Lewis, the former CEO of Bank of America, when then New York Attorney General Andrew Coumo accused him, and other key executives, of committing fraud during Bank of America’s merger with Merrill Lynch. Bank of America was accused of intentionally failing to disclose Merrill’s massive losses so shareholders would approve the merger. Coumo also accused the bank of manipulating the federal government to receive more financial support by threatening to pull out of its merger.

Obama has been critical of "fat cat bankers," most notably saying in 2009, "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street… You guys are drawing down $10, $20 million bonuses after… you guys caused the problem."

White, as the attorney for Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, attempted to pressure a U.S. attorney to slow down a investigation into how the drug was marketed, the night before a guilty plea was secured. The chief of staff to the deputy attorney general called the prosecuting attorney’s cellphone in an attempt to slow the investigation, as White’s request. The U.S attorney, John L. Brownlee, refused to delay the investigation, securing a guilty plea worth $635 million.

White's husband, John W. White, previously served in the S.E.C from 2006 through 2008. He headed the S.E.C’s corporate finance division, overseeing disclosures and reporting of public companies.