Mary Jo White, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), sat recently for an interview with C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb as part of its Q&A series. Lamb is one of the best interviewers in the business, and he was at his best for this program. Even if a viewer had little interest in the arcane workings of the SEC, this program would be worth watching to see Lamb at work.
Lamb spent roughly two-thirds of the program walking through White's career as the chief prosecutor for Manhattan under both local and federal auspices, coupled with top-level private experience as head of litigation for the prestigious law firm Debevoise Plimpton.
She recounted her success in supervising the third prosecution of John Gotti, the one that finally convicted him of racketeering, extortion, multiple murders that she called "a soup to nuts crime wave, and when she later prosecuted Gotti's son.
In 1993, she prosecuted the first World Trade Center bombing and also the 12 leaders of the plot to blow up the bridges and tunnels in Manhattan, the United Nations and the FBI. Other famous defendant was Ramzi Yousef, both for the World Trade Center bombing and a plot against Air Manila jumbo jets, and his uncle, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, allegedly the principal architect of 9/11.
Osama bin Laden was known to the prosecutors and was indicted twice in connection with embassy bombings in East Africa. She acknowledged being disappointed that the team was unable to prevent the 9/11 attack, attributing it to a "failure of imagination."
At this point the viewer might be in awe of White and convinced that she is just the right person to run the SEC. She pointed out that as chairman she is the CEO of the Commission and sets its agenda.
During the last part of the program, Lamb listed cases settled under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act involving leading U.S. corporations, and he asked, "What is wrong with us?"
She deftly mentioned that she had been recused on a couple of those cases. Lamb showed a clip from a 2005 interview with Vanity Fair editor Bethany McLean, who blamed the SEC for failing to review the financial statements of Enron since 1997, and he posted a 2011 quote from Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, asking "Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?"
She insisted that the SEC conducts vigorous enforcement when the evidence warrants. Lamb came back with the Taibbi quote that no heads of the largest companies involved in the mortgage scandal had ever been prosecuted, and noted that White had represented some of those companies, including JPMorgan Chase, as he quipped, "A lot of people think they're a bunch of crooks." He added that people are upset that JPMorgan can set aside $13 billion to settle litigation, having created a reserve of $23 billion, the stock went up and CEO Jamie Dimon got more money.
White allowed that the SEC has the power to bar individuals from the industry.
Perhaps the most telling passage occurred near the end when Lamb elicited from White absolute denials that she would ever take any action at the behest of the president or a powerful committee chairman. If Lamb had chosen to, he could have shown several clips in which White has pointedly aligned herself with industry positions under heavy jawboning by legislators. He could also have questioned the appearance created by the role of White's husband, John, a former division chief at the SEC who practices securities law with another of the leading New York firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
White insisted that she brings all of her knowledge and experience to bear for the public's benefit, and she pointed out that the Commission will now consider requiring settlements of enforcement actions to include admissions of wrongdoing.
However, the overall impression is that White is semi-tough, and viewers may wonder what happened to the fearless prosecutor of mobsters and terrorists once she got the job of protecting investors from Wall Street.
(Archived video can be found here
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