“You don’t want to mess with Mary Jo.” That is what President Obama said about White when he nominated her to be chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. A few months into the job, the 65-year-old has cemented her reputation as a pugnacious bulldog. “I get a lot of input from all kinds of constituencies, which I think is very helpful,” says White. “But I don’t succumb to outside influences.”
Her primary tasks are rule-makings pursuant to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform law and the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Start-Ups Act. “Enforcement needs to be a credible deterrent to wrongdoing,” the former prosecutor says.
White is also looking at structural issues, such as high-frequency trading, which has flummoxed regulators, and money-market funds, which the agency is trying to curtail. “I’m a very focused person, period.... It’s in my DNA.”
White’s predecessor, Mary Schapiro, left the SEC in December 2012 after a tumultuous four-year tenure following the 2008 financial meltdown.
White is a native of McLean, Va. She received a bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary, a master’s degree in psychology from what is now The New School in New York City, and a law degree from Columbia University, where she graduated at the top of her class.
After serving as acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, White became the first woman to be appointed U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. In the ensuing decade, she presided over a number of high-profile cases, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. White also sounded an early warning about Osama bin Laden, and she prosecuted mobsters such as John Gotti, head of the Gambino syndicate.
At the time of her nomination, she advocated on behalf of big banks as the head of litigation at Debevoise & Plimpton, raising concerns about a potential conflict of interest. (Her husband, John White, represents Wall Street as a corporate lawyer at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.) During her confirmation hearings, White promised to recuse herself from matters involving former clients. The Senate Banking Committee approved her nomination by 21-1, and the Senate confirmed her unanimously.