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Obama keeps the SEC in pocket of Wall Street

As surely as little boys on sleds follow the first snowfall, the departure of Mary Schapiro as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission has occasioned one fawning encomium after another from the press.

“It’s not a stretch to say she has saved the regulatory body from irrelevance, if not outright extinction, and she has rebuilt it into a powerful presence on Wall Street,” wrote Dana Milbank of the Washington Post.

The New York Times’ business section carried an homage to Schapiro, along with the requisite photograph of her looking off into the middle distance, pensively, as the late-afternoon sun flooded an SEC conference room. “As her bruising tenure comes to an end,” the article said, she “leaves behind a stronger S.E.C., an overhaul characterized by her attention to detail and meticulous preparation.”

I understand the time-honored ritual of praising a departing public servant for his or her selflessness in passing up millions of dollars in the private sector to take on the thankless task of heading up a powerful government agency. But enough already.

Let’s face it: Mary Schapiro did a lousy job as head of the SEC. What we needed was an SEC that would not only do its primary job of protecting investors from the likes of Bernie Madoff but also would hold Wall Street executives accountable for their extraordinarily bad — and, yes, in some cases criminal — behavior leading up to the 2007 and 2008 financial crisis.

Toothless enforcer

What President Barack Obama gave us in Schapiro was yet another Wall Street regulator deeply indebted to Wall Street itself. Schapiro, the former chief executive officer of the banks’ self-regulatory agency, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, has long had her own fortunes closely tied to those of banking bigwigs. When she left Finra in 2009 to take the SEC job, its board paid her a $9 million bonus — a little something to remember them by.

Remember them she did. Instead of finding a head of enforcement with teeth, Schapiro appointed Robert Khuzami, former general counsel of Deutsche Bank AG in the Americas. In that previous job, Khuzami approved the sale to investors of billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations that would later prove beyond toxic — and one of the main causes of the financial collapse.

Not surprisingly, Schapiro and Khuzami have done close to nothing to hold Wall Street bankers, traders and executives accountable for causing the financial crisis. Neither Khuzami nor Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, have been able to uncover a shred of criminal evidence against Jon Corzine, the former CEO of MF Global Holdings Ltd., for his role in that firm’s collapse. This despite the unexplained, unauthorized use of customer money to cover MF Global’s rising debts in the last days of its existence.

Nor was there an effort to make a case against Richard Fuld, the former chief executive of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., despite the solid evidence of indictable offenses itemized in the post-mortem done on the firm by court-appointed examiner Anton Valukas. Funny how a generation ago, before regulators had the advantage of incriminating email trails, 3,500 financial industry workers went to jail for their roles in the savings and loan crisis.

Congressional questions

As if we needed another reason to lament the way Schapiro ran the SEC, she obliged this month in an exchange with Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat. Lowey was upset about the case of Peter Sivere, a former whistle-blower in the compliance department at JPMorgan Chase & Co. whose anonymity was blown by George Demos, an SEC lawyer who later ran for Congress. (I wrote in greater detail about Sivere’s plight in an earlier column.) Lowey wrote Schapiro on Sept. 21: “What steps has the SEC taken to ensure the protection of the identity of whistleblowers and how will the SEC correct this mistake and ensure that such a disclosure will not occur in the future?”

Basic questions. But not for Schapiro.

In a Nov. 14 response to Lowey, Schapiro trotted out the sort of corporate pablum she must have written thousands of times at Finra: “Because this case involved a confidential personnel matter, I cannot disclose what supervisory response, if any, was made in this particular case prior.” Thanks, Mary!

Now Obama has added insult to injury by naming Elisse Walter, a crony of Schapiro’s from Finra and a current SEC commissioner, as Schapiro’s successor. The silver lining is that the New York Times reported Walter may only be an interim appointment. Then the dark clouds of injustice reappear: Atop the list of Walter’s potential replacements are Khuzami, of all people, and Richard Ketchum, Schapiro’s replacement as CEO of Finra. Also mentioned is one far-better choice: Sallie Krawcheck, the well-respected former executive at Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

The idea that only one of Wall Street’s own can regulate Wall Street is deeply disturbing. If Obama keeps Walter on or appoints Khuzami or Ketchum, we would be better off blowing up the SEC and starting over.

I still believe the best person to lead the SEC at this moment remains former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. He would fearlessly hold Wall Street accountable for its past sins, as he did when he was New York State attorney general and as he now does as a cable television host. (Disclosure: I am an occasional guest on his show.)

We need an SEC head who can inspire a new generation of investors to believe the capital markets are no longer rigged and that Wall Street cannot just capture every one of its Washington regulators.

Cohan, the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly an investment banker at Lazard Freres, Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan Chase, against which he lost an arbitration case over his dismissal.

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