Who is Mary Jo White, Obama's choice for top Wall Street cop?

Suzanne Plunkett/AP

Mary Jo White, the woman President Obama plans to nominate on Thursday to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, has earned her share of superlatives over a long, storied career.

Here’s what you need to know about White, who could become the nation’s next top financial cop:

She would be the first prosecutor to head the SEC. In choosing White, the administration is signaling it plans to take a tougher stance with Wall Street, a response to liberal criticisms that it has been too lenient toward an industry blamed for bringing the economy to its knees. She would be the first prosecutor to lead the SEC, according to The Wall Street Journal. But she already has another first under her belt: When she took over the high-profile role of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mary Jo White became the first woman to hold the position. With nearly 10 years in that role, she brings a wealth of experience prosecuting some of the nation’s most high-profile cases. 

She knows the finance industry well—maybe too well for some. Some critics might argue that White is too cozy with Wall Street. She has served as a director of the Nasdaq stock exchange and on its Executive, Audit and Policy Committee, according to her law-firm biography. And, as The Journal points out, she could face questions over her role as defense attorney for Bank of America's former head Kenneth Lewis in his civil trial.

White played a key role prosecuting Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida militants in the 1990s. In her nearly 10 years heading the attorney’s office, White took on a handful of the nation’s most high-profile terrorism cases. She led the prosecution of  “blind sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman, who ultimately was sentenced to two life sentences for planning a series of domestic bombings and assassinations, as well as Ramzi Yousef, a mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. She had become so steeped in knowledge of al-Qaida and its network that she said she immediately suspected Osama bin Laden when she heard of the bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa, according to a PBS Frontline interview. In 1998, her office indicted him for his role. 

White investigated President Clinton’s last-minute pardons. When White heard that Clinton had pardoned billionaire Marc Rich in his final days in office, she was “furious,” according to Timemagazine. Clinton had appointed her in 1993 to head the U.S. attorney's office in Southern New York, but the Rich pardon was particularly offensive because that office had spent so much effort prosecuting him over the years. In 1983, Rich was indicted by the New York attorney’s office on charges of tax evasion and illegal oil deals with Iran. He fled the country before his trial, but the office continued to pursue him under then-attorney Rudy Giuliani and later White herself, according toTime. Though Clinton pardoned Rich, White got her chance to fire back when Attorney General John Ashcroft chose her to investigate Clinton’s 177 last-minute pardons and commutations.

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