Andrew Ceresney, Co-Director of the Division of Enforcement at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. June 27, 2013. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL. ()
Andrew Ceresney, the former enforcement director of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission who is rejoining Debevoise & Plimpton in March, said he believes aggressive enforcement at the SEC will continue under Donald Trump’s administration.
“My view is that the SEC has now re-established itself as an aggressive, tough, but fair regulator and I think that reputation will continue,” Ceresney said in an interview Tuesday, shortly after Debevoise announced that he would return to the firm as co-chair of its litigation department.
Under Ceresney, the SEC’s enforcement division broke records in both volume of enforcement activity and monetary remedies recovered, the agency has said. Ceresney, 45, left the agency at the end of 2016, while SEC chair Mary Jo White left the agency Jan. 20 when Trump took office.
Ceresney said he previously worked with Jay Clayton, President Trump’s pick to chair the SEC, in private practice on some matters. He called Clayton, who is a longtime M&A partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, a “very talented, thoughtful, smart leader, and I think enforcement will continue to be vigorous under him.”
“Enforcement is a bipartisan issue,” said Ceresney. “Vigorous enforcement is important for the markets.”
Ceresney hasn’t had the same friendly relationship with the president himself. In 2007 he and White, as Debevoise lawyers, represented Timothy O’Brien, a journalist sued by Trump over O’Brien’s book raising questions on Trump’s net worth. According to a report last year in The Washington Post based on a court document, Ceresney and White repeatedly confronted Trump in a deposition about instances in which he had not been truthful or in which Trump had overstated his success. In 2009, Trump’s case was dismissed.
In an interview, Ceresney confirmed that the case was a “lasting memory” for him. “It was a challenging case but we did prevail on summary judgment,” he said. “What that case shows is that we are able to go up against any opposition, even a future president.” He added, “Ultimately justice prevailed.”
Ceresney was co-chair of the white-collar group at Debevoise before joining the SEC in April 2013. Now joining Debevoise with the higher rank of litigation co-chair, he will have the same title as White before she became SEC chair.
At Debevoise, Ceresney will represent companies, boards of directors and individuals in SEC, criminal and other regulatory matters, and will handle internal investigations and civil litigation, the firm said.
Revolving Door Spins Again
Under ethics rules, Ceresney can’t appear before the SEC for one year and he can’t work on any matter that he worked on for the government.
Ceresney’s enforcement division had about 2,000 active investigations at the time he left. But Ceresney said he didn’t think the ethics rules would place a large restriction on his private practice, noting he could still appear before other regulators, and if an SEC investigation was in an early stage when he left, it’s unlikely he would have had a role in it.
“The enforcement realm is pretty fast paced and investigations arise all the time, and I don’t think those restrictions will unduly be a problem” for his practice, Ceresney said.
Ceresney may face the same revolving-door criticism that other lawyers have confronted after they held top regulating roles and then used knowledge of the system to defend the same types of institutions in the private sector. But Ceresney said there are advantages for both the government and private sector parties when lawyers make such moves.
“There are benefits to the public from having people in public positions … who understand what happens in the private side,” he said, adding that benefit extends to private clients who have lawyers who have served in the government.
Ceresney noted that he defended private clients for 10 years at Debevoise before moving to the SEC in 2013.
Meanwhile, his mentor, White, has not yet announced what she will do next. “One thing I’m sure about is that Mary Jo is not going to retire, she’s got tremendous amounts of energy and just tremendous experience,” Ceresney said.
According to ALM affiliate ThinkAdvisor, which recently interviewed her, White said she “won’t be off long. I love to work. I love hard challenges and I’ll very quickly move to the next one—whatever that is.”
At the SEC, Ceresney was making about $246,000 in 2015. He will return to one of the most profitable law firms on Wall Street, where average profits per partner were $2.625 million in 2015, according to The American Lawyer.
Ceresney wouldn’t comment on his new compensation at Debevoise as litigation co-chair. When White was serving in the same role at Debevoise in 2012, she received slightly more than $2.4 million that year, according to ethics disclosures.
Ceresney will co-chair the litigation department, which has more than 200 lawyers, with Mary Beth Hogan. As litigation co-chair, he will succeed John Kiernan, who will continue as a litigation partner and is now president of the New York City Bar Association.
Ceresney said he did talk to a few other firms before choosing to return to Debevoise, but it was “an easy choice” in the end. He cited the firm’s culture and said “the white-collar team at Debevoise is second to none.”
Among some of its prominent matters, Debevoise represents Michael Pearson, former CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, in investigations by the SEC, the U.S. Department of Justice and other regulators. It is also representing the city of New York in connection with inquiries by federal and local authorities into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign fundraising practices and related issues.
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