White person for the job?

Apr 02, 2013
<p><em>Ian Williams</em> suspects a fox in the henhouse</p>

When I was a teenage schoolboy, I had an evening job selling what were essentially phony ‘charity’ pools coupons door to door.

Only a homeopathically diluted amount of the cash went to any kind of charity, but I made a lot of money in commission – and it was tax-free to boot! I discovered I could pitch my rhetoric perfectly to evoke people’s compassion and consideration.

Mesmerized, they reached deep in their pockets to enrich both my schooldays and the sordid tricksters who had invented and fine-tuned the operation to stay within the law.

Many decades later, I still occasionally wake up in the night with twinges of conscience about those youthful misdemeanors. As a result, I am indulgent to penitent sinners, mindful that John Newton, a notoriously profane slave ship captain, later wrote Amazing Grace about how repentance saved a wretch like him.

Being somewhat bearish on divinity stocks, I am stuck with my unredeemed guilt feelings. And unlike Captain Newton, I never really faced a storm at sea with the threat of drowning to convert me.

The news of Mary Jo White’s nomination as SEC chair provoked comments about revolving doors and poachers turned gamekeepers, as well as frequent recollections of former US President Roosevelt’s wry comment on his appointment of retired bootlegger and city boss Joe Kennedy as the first SEC chair: ‘Set a thief to catch one.’ Amazingly, I haven’t yet seen ‘Whitewash’ used, but feel sure I will.

Mary Jo White spent many years with Debevoise & Plimpton, a cohort of Wall Street’s legal shock brigade that has been helping corporate America defy the plain intent of the law; who knows, it might even have drafted the famously Clintonian quibbles about the meaning of the word ‘is’.

This is the group that has successfully ensured nobody responsible for fraudulently mispackaging or mis-selling mortgage bonds and bringing the globe to the edge of corporate Armageddon has faced prosecution, let alone sentencing.

Informed commentators on the SEC have dourly compared the trickle of money federal employees get to plug the holes in the legal dykes with the floods of cash that go to those who conspire to breach them. By contrast, working for the US at this level is a thankless task.

Typecast as a greedy featherbedded bureaucrat by the media, furloughed by Congress and under constant malign scrutiny from lobbyists, a civil servant’s job is not a happy one. Far from backing the SEC, for years now legislators have tried to stop it carrying out its clearly legislated duties, such as implementing Dodd-Frank.

Is it better to have as SEC chair someone of impeccable reforming character, whose confirmation the Conference Board and its minions in Congress will fight to the finish? Or someone who knows her stuff whom they will let through unopposed?

So far, the usual Capitol Hill suspects have maintained an uncanny discretion about White’s possible appointment. If they were being clever, one would almost expect some feigned horror beyond the occasional evocations of White’s time as prosecutor to provide more cover for the appointment.

Maybe the naysayers have it wrong. I can’t help having a soft spot for White. She did take on Donald Trump, the heir apparent of blustering failed entrepreneurship. Who knows, she might use the dam-busting skills she acquired more recently as a corporate attorney and wield the same prosecutorial zeal she previously used against the Cosa Nostra.

Wall Street will not hurl her headlong into the East River with a fish in her mouth if she does, but it would mean she could kiss goodbye to future directorships.

That said, her earnings on Wall Street should have provided her with the war chest she needs to eke her through the famine years of zealous federal service. White could hit the headlines in a way none of the gray SEC eminences of the last decades have.

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