SEC Gets New Chairman as Senate Approves Ex-Prosecutor White

The U.S. Senate confirmed Mary Jo White to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, putting the former federal prosecutor in charge of an agency that has failed to satisfy critics with its response to the financial crisis.

The Senate approved White by unanimous consent yesterday, meaning no senators objected to her appointment, as the first former U.S. attorney to run the SEC. She succeeds Elisse B. Walter, who has served as chairman since Mary Schapiro stepped down in December.

White overcame questions about her past work for financial institutions such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and UBS AG. White, 65, will retire from Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, where she earned $2.4 million last year as a partner, she said in an ethics disclosure letter.

The SEC regulates stock exchanges, brokers and money managers, and imposes penalties for violations of securities law. It has been governed by only four commissioners -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- since Schapiro left.

The addition of White means the commission, now with three Democratic appointees, could move forward more quickly with new regulations. The commission has been considering rules including restrictions on money-market mutual funds, executive-pay disclosure and financial advisers to municipalities.

“The SEC needs a strong leader in place as it works to implement Wall Street reform, and that is exactly what the commission is getting with Mary Jo White,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson said in a statement.

Meeting Tomorrow

White could begin at the commission as soon as today if paperwork required of presidential appointees is completed, SEC spokesman John Nester said. She could preside over an SEC open meeting scheduled for tomorrow to finalize a regulation requiring financial institutions to create and maintain identify-theft programs.

On Friday, White is scheduled to take part in a symbolic swearing-in ceremony at the SEC’s Washington headquarters.

Walter, 62, could continue to serve as a commissioner after White joins as chairman. Walter hasn’t announced how long she’ll serve on the commission.

“In recent months, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Mary Jo and have been impressed by her knowledge, determination and commitment to public service as she takes the helm of the greatest workforce in government,” Walter said in a statement.

Some observers say the commission may proceed slowly under White because she lacks a background in policy making. Her Senate nomination hearing last month yielded few details about her regulatory philosophy.

Dodd-Frank Act

White said her priorities include completing regulations required by the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress’ response to the 2008 financial crisis, and the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, which sought to ease capital raising for new companies. White’s past career as a defense lawyer won’t affect her ability to write or vote on regulations, she said.

She will be required to recuse herself from enforcement matters that involve former legal clients. White, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, told the Senate Banking Committee that her conflicts of interest would be “quite narrow.”

“It will be a high priority throughout my tenure to further strengthen the enforcement function of the SEC,” White told the Senate Banking Committee on March 12. “It must be fair, but it also must be bold and unrelenting.”