Obama nominates former federal prosecutor as SEC chairwoman

mary jo white
Mary Jo White

Mary Jo White was nominated Thursday by President Barack Obama as chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a White House spokesman confirmed.

Ms. White, a former federal prosecutor who is a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, was the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, from 1993 to 2002, where she directed successful prosecutions of international terrorists, organized crime figures and white-collar cases. She has also served on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange board.

Ms. White's selection “really signals a change of emphasis at the SEC,” said Thomas Gorman, a former SEC enforcement official and current partner at international law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

In an interview, Mr. Gorman praised current Chairwoman Elisse Walter and her predecessor Mary Schapiro for “really turning around … an agency that had been in very difficult straits. Selecting someone like Mary Jo White suggests that they're looking to send a message that there will be a more aggressive approach to enforcement.”

The challenge, said Mr. Gorman and other observers, will be advancing the regulatory demands of the agency, which include rules implementing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the JOBS Act.

“It is of some concern that, with all the many pending issues, we don't have a clue what her positions are,” said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, in an interview. “She has a reputation for being a smart, tough, aggressive prosecutor and … defense attorney. We think we could do with a smart, tough SEC chairman.”

Jeffrey Mahoney, general counsel for the Council of Institutional Investors, said his group's members look forward to working with her to further corporate governance measures. “She obviously has outstanding credentials,” Mr. Mahoney said.

The next step for Ms. White is vetting by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Officials there, as well as at the SEC, declined to comment on Ms. White's nomination. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, who has criticized the agency for not issuing JOBS Act regulations, said in a statement he hopes Ms. White “will reverse the trend of delayed rule-making we've seen from her predecessor.”

In a statement, Ms. White said, “I'm excited by the opportunity to serve the public in such an important capacity.”