President Obama has nominated former federal prosecutor and Debevoise & Plimpton partner Mary Jo White as the next chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

White, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and now a white-collar defense lawyer, has been at Debevoise since 2002. Obama made the announcement at a press conference Thursday at the White House.

The president also renominated Richard Cordray, also a former prosecutor, to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. With the nominations, the White House said these attorneys in top enforcement roles will help ensure the implementation of consumer protection efforts and Wall Street reforms from Obama’s first term.

Rick Firestone, a partner in the Washington office of McDermott Will & Emery, agrees that White’s nomination sends a message that the SEC “will continue to be a tough cop on Wall Street.”

“While some might blanch at her background as a former U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Mary Jo would bring a lot to the table as SEC chairman,” Firestone, a former associate director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a statement.

“She is smart, eminently fair, has great judgment and is a leader, all important qualities for an SEC chairman,” Firestone said. “Moreover, her extensive experience in private practice gives her balance and a deep understanding of Wall Street and the issues in our capital markets.”

White, the first woman to become the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, specialized in investigating and prosecuting large scale white-collar crimes and complex securities and financial institution fraud, the White House official noted. She prosecuted the terrorists responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and American embassies in Africa. White also has a background in the financial industry, having served as a director of Nasdaq.

Cordray already leads the CFPB, after Obama went around Republican opposition in the Senate in January and made a controversial recess appointment. That appointment expires at the end of the year, however.

The nominations of White and Cordray will have to be confirmed by the Senate. White would replace Elisse Walter, an appointee of George W. Bush who took over as chair in December when Mary Schapiro announced she would step down from the position.

White will face an array of challenges in leading the SEC. The agency has finalized just 33 of 95 rules it’s required to write to implement the Dodd-Frank Act. Among the major pieces still lacking — rules for swaps oversight under Title VII of the act and a final version of the so-called Volcker Rule, which includes a ban on banks making short-term trades for their own profit.

The SEC is also facing a lawsuit by business groups over its rules requiring companies to report whether their products contain four “conflict minerals” from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Dodd-Frank also requires certain hedge-fund and private-fund advisers to register with the SEC, giving the agency oversight over more than 1,500 new entities. Walter has said the agency “is not doing an adequate job of examining investment advisers,” and called the SEC “strikingly short-staffed,” in a December appearance at Legal affiliate The National Law Journal‘s regulatory summit.

Another issue is oversight money market mutual funds — “ticking time bombs of systemic risk,” as Commissioner Daniel Gallagher put it in a speech earlier this month. Schapiro tried and failed to enact sweeping changes for how such funds are regulated.

The SEC has also been criticized for failing to go after more top Wall Street executives in connection with the financial meltdown, and for settling some cases on the cheap and without an admission of wrongdoing.

SEC Enforcement Division head Robert Khuzami is leaving the agency at the end of the month. His successor has not been announced.


Todd Ruger is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York.

Jenna Greene contributed to this story.