Obama's SEC pick seen as warning shot

President Obama's pick of Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission is being seen as a warning shot to bad actors on Wall Street.

White, who will be officially nominated by the president later Thursday, would come to the agency after establishing a reputation as a hard-nosed prosecutor.

Currently a high-profile white-collar defense attorney, White was no stranger to tough cases as a New York prosecutor, setting her sights on mafia bosses and terrorists.

Liberals long frustrated with the administration's apparent inability or unwillingness to pursue criminal charges over the financial crisis are hoping White's selection signals a get-tough approach.

"She knew who the bad guys were, went after them and put them in prison when they broke the law. That’s what must happen if integrity and investor confidence is to be restored in our securities markets," said Dennis Keller, president of the financial reform group Better Markets. "Wall Street is a high crime area and Mary Jo White brings the right skill set to restore the rule of law on Wall Street."

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As a prosecutor, White pursued charges against mob boss John Gotti, as well as those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York praised Obama’s selection, calling White a “fearless, tough-as-nails prosecutor.”

"She will not shy away from enforcing the laws to ensure that markets operate fairly, but her integrity means she will approach all matters without regard to politics. She will easily be confirmed," Schumer said in a statement.

The president had previously given nods to desires on the left for harsher punishments assessed on the financial sector. In his 2012 State of the Union address, he announced a new task force would be created within the Justice Department devoted to identifying wrongdoing in the housing market before the financial collapse.

While the work of that unit and others has led to some multibillion-dollar settlements with some of the nation's largest banks, many liberals still feel like the financial players that sowed the seeds of the meltdown have gotten off scot-free.

However, even if White is confirmed, there will be limitations to how hard she can push. The SEC deals in civil, not criminal charges, and as a matter of practice largely settles most of its cases.