Democrats assail Wall Street ties in Obama administration

Getty Images

President Obama’s nomination of Antonio Weiss to serve as the Treasury Department’s top domestic finance official is drawing fire from an unusual sector: his fellow Democrats. 

Liberal lawmakers like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren questions Puerto Rico board's meeting on Wall Street Overnight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform Anti-trade senators say chamber would be crazy to pass TPP MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been quick to oppose Weiss, a major investment banker with Lazard.

ADVERTISEMENT
Among their grievances is the fact that Lazard’s work is primarily in international finance and he is nominated for a domestic position. They’re also critical of his role in structuring several tax inversion deals, which have drawn criticism from the president himself.

But an underlying thread to the Democratic opposition is a fatigue with filling top-ranking administration spots with officials that have spent significant time working for or on behalf of Wall Street titans. Warren penned an op-ed in The Huffington Post criticizing the administration’s approach under the headline “Enough is Enough.” 

Here’s a rundown of other top administration officials with ties to Wall Street:

Mary Jo White: Chairman, Securities and Exchange Commission

One of Wall Street’s top cops reaped plaudits on her way to a unanimous Senate confirmation to lead the SEC back in 2013. The former federal prosecutor was hailed as tough by both parties for taking on mob bosses and terrorists, but she also spent time as a prominent white-collar defense attorney where she represented some of the biggest names in finance like Morgan Stanley and Ken Lewis, the former head of Bank of America.

While unanimously confirmed on the Senate floor, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) cast a protest vote against her nomination at the committee level, criticizing it as a broader sign of Wall Street’s presence in government.

“I don’t question Mary Jo White’s integrity or skill as an attorney. But I do question Washington’s long-held bias towards Wall Street and its inability to find watchdogs outside of the very industry that they are meant to police,” he said in a statement.

Jack LewJack LewObama administration officials ramp up push for Pacific pact Overnight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform GOP senators press Treasury to withdraw estate tax proposal MORE: Treasury Secretary

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has been a near-constant presence in Washington dating back to the Clinton administration. He has filled several roles under Obama, including chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget.

But between Democratic presidencies, Lew put in stints as a top official at New York University and Citigroup, where he was chief operating officer for one of the bank’s trading groups. The latter became a bit of an issue when Obama tapped him for the Treasury post, as it emerged that part of his Citigroup compensation was a $56,000 investment based in the Cayman Islands, infamous as a tax haven.

Lew defended his work and compensation at the bank, and said he was unaware part of his investment portfolio was based in the Caymans. He added he sold that investment at a loss when Obama asked him to join his administration in 2010.

Stanley Fischer: Vice Chair, Federal Reserve

While the Federal Reserve is not officially part of the administration, Obama did nominate Fischer to serve as the central bank’s vice chair. Even before being nominated, Fischer was renowned as a monetary policy expert, having previously taught former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and serving as head of Israel’s central bank.

But he also spent three years as a top executive at Citigroup. Warren pressed Fischer on that part of his resume during his confirmation hearing, noting that several other Obama officials had Citigroup ties, as she wondered whether one institution was enjoying too much influence at the top of the U.S. government.

Fischer said disproportionate influence would be a concern, but that wasn’t the case with him. Rather, he presented his time at the bank as relevant experience for regulating institutions, and said that while other Obama officials also worked at Citigroup, it’s not as if all were working on the same issues. Fischer went on to be confirmed by the full Senate without incident.

Michael Froman: U.S. Trade Representative

The president’s top trade representative was another Citigroup alum tapped to take a key administration post. A longtime Treasury Department official, Froman spent several years at the bank, leading its insurance operations and other investment branches.

Like Lew, Froman also had Cayman investments, but he too was easily confirmed by the Senate. However, one of the four votes in opposition to the pick was Warren. The outspoken freshman opposed the Froman pick because she said he would not commit to sufficient transparency measures when negotiating trade agreements.

Gary Gensler: former chairman, Commodity Futures Trading Commission

The former head of the derivatives regulator had an extensive Wall Street resume before joining the Obama administration. Gensler made partner at Goldman Sachs when he was 30, and spent nearly two decades at the financial giant before taking a job in President Clinton’s Treasury Department.

Gensler also spent some time as a Senate staffer to former Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), but his lengthy time in the financial sector was yet again an issue when the president nominated him to lead the CFTC. Sanders placed a hold on his nomination, citing his concerns with Gensler’s time at Goldman. He ultimately lifted the hold after meeting with Gensler, setting the stage for an easy 2009 confirmation.

Despite a lengthy stint on Wall Street, Gensler developed a reputation as one of the toughest regulators on Obama’s early team charged with implementing the sweeping Dodd-Frank financial reform law. Gensler stepped down from the job in 2014, replaced by Timothy Massad, a former Treasury official and corporate lawyer.

In response to charges there is too much Wall Street at the Obama administration, a senior Treasury official argued there is a wide range of experience at the highest levels of the federal government.

“I am not aware of any prominent Wall Street figures currently serving at the Treasury Department. It is important to note that Treasury’s senior staff represents a wide range of public and private sector experience, including those who have spent the vast majority of their careers in public service; such as at the Federal Reserve, on Capitol Hill and in state financial regulation,” the official said.

For example, Mark Mazur, the Treasury’s assistant secretary for tax policy, has logged over two decades in the public sector, working at the Joint Committee on Taxation and the National Economic Council. And Nathan Sheets, the department’s under secretary for international affairs, spent nearly two decades working at the Fed.

This story was last updated on Dec. 1 at 1:09 p.m.