Is Obama's Wall Street Cop Pick as Tough as She Seems?

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 2:36 PM EST

Mary Jo White, Obama's new nominee to head a key financial regulatory agency, has quite a reputation: Sen. Chuck Schumer has called her "tough as nails," and when the president announced the pick yesterday, he warned, "You don't want to mess with Mary Jo." But when it comes to policing the big banks, is she really such a hard nose?

Many financial reformers are psyched the president chose White, the first female US attorney in Manhattan, to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, one of the federal agencies that oversees financial markets. They say that choosing someone with fierce prosecutorial experience and success in cracking down on white-collar crime signals Obama's intention to follow through on the liberal agenda he laid out in his inauguration speech Monday, and keep banks on a tight leash. At the same time, though, White has also defended Wall Street execs in private practice, and has the backing of big shots on the Street.

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At first glance, White's reformist credentials look good. Though she is most famous for overseeing the prosecutions of mob bosses and terrorists during her decade-long tenure as a top federal prosecutor in New York City, White also cracked down on Wall Street fraud, winning a $340 million fine against Daiwa Bank for illegally covering up trading losses and other crimes. This is a good sign, since the SEC still needs to finalize dozens of rules required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act, and the agency will continue to face big pressure from the financial industry to water them down.

Obama is convinced that White will carry her courtroom experience into regulatory land. "Mary Jo does not intimidate easily," he said upon nominating her. "It’s not enough to change the law," he said, referring to Dodd-Frank. "We also need cops on the beat to enforce the law."

But another section of White's resumé involves defending Wall Street executives. In private practice, she argued for some of Wall Street’s biggest stars, like Bank of America head Kenneth D. Lewis. She also represented JPMorgan Chase over issues related to the financial crisis, and Morgan Stanley. (This kind of work will likely restrict some of her initial work at the SEC, due to conflict of interest rules, according to Reuters.)

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon is definitely a big fan. "I have met Mary Jo White, and anyone who knows her at all—extremely capable, competent, bright, tough and a perfect choice," he said in an interview Thursday with Fox Business Network.

Critics also say that in addition to her closeness with the big banks, her lack of regulatory experience could make it hard for the agency to draw up and enforce tough rules in the face of fierce lobbying by industry folks who are steeped in financial arcana.

White's congressional confirmation is expected to be easy. She would succeed the current SEC Chairman Elisse Walter, a Democratic commissioner who took over after Mary Schapiro stepped down in December.

Whether White is "tough-as-nails" on the banks or not, she should at least be fun to have around. She kills it at basketball, despite being five feet all, and once arrived at a tennis match on a red motorcycle, with Helen Reddy’s "I Am Woman" blasting.

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