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Putting The Collar On White Collar Crime


Legal Affairs

PUTTING THE COLLAR ON WHITE-COLLAR CRIME

Mary Jo White is on a roll. After becoming the first woman to head the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York a year ago, she has been a close adviser to Attorney General Janet Reno, presided over the successful World Trade Center bombing case, indicted a utility for environmental crimes, and launched sweeping investigations into corruption at two Wall Street powerhouses.

And remarkably, White, 46, has done all that without arousing the animosity that usually goes with running one of the country's most powerful law enforcement offices. "She's a brilliant lawyer and very street-savvy," says Edwin G. Schallert, her friend and former law partner. "But she's also the most down-to-earth, least formal person I know."

White's demeanor is certainly unpretentious. She prefers beer to wine, is a rabid fan of any number of New York sports teams, and when asked will relate tales of her ancestor, the Indian princess Pocahontas. She also has a reputation for relentlessly pursuing cases, which has helped reinvigorate a staff of lawyers and investigators often frustrated under White's more conservative, patrician predecessor, Otto G. Obermaier. And she's put Corporate America on notice that the office that brought down Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and Drexel Burnham in the 1980s is back on the beat. "The office is thriving right now," says Henry J. DePippo, a prosecutor who recently left White's staff after the trade center case.

Part of what has made White's first year such a banner one is serendipity. She got her job as prosecutors were already preparing their high-profile case against terrorists accused of the trade center bombing. And two front-page securities scandals, one involving Kidder, Peabody & Co. and the other Prudential Securities Inc., have broken under her watch, making White a center of attention on Wall Street (table).

DOGGED. What distinguishes White from some of her predecessors, say government and private lawyers, is her ability to make the most out of complex cases through creative legal strategies and perseverance. For White, being dogged about white-collar crime is "the special responsibility" of her office. "Deterrence works most in the white-collar area," she says. "So I don't think we should too quickly conclude not to go with a criminal case in the white-collar area."

White's move to charge Consolidated Edison of New York with environmental crimes in December is one example of her aggressiveness. Some lawyers advised against it, saying that the case should either be handled civilly or that only company officials and not Con Ed should be charged with wrongdoing. "That was a very unpopular case for her to bring," says Alan M. Cohen, a white-collar defense lawyer in New York. "But it shows that even though it was going to lead to criticism, she's going to bring any case she thinks should be brought."

White's background is more that of an intellectual than a street fighter. She grew up in Virginia, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the College of William & Mary in 1970. After earning a master's in psychology in 1971, she excelled at Columbia University Law School, making Law Review. From there, she clerked for a federal judge for a year before working for 31/2 years in the office she now heads. White left government to be a defense lawyer at tony Debevoise & Plimpton in New York for nine years but returned to the life of a cop in 1991. Says White: "In my heart, I am more of a prosecutor."

Or a detective. In her early law-enforcement days, White was prosecuting two men accused of robbing a bank. A key element in identifying them was tracking down the type of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter masks they wore during the robbery. Investigators had failed to find the masks, but White and Barbara S. Jones, now the first assistant district attorney, spent an entire night driving to costume stores, eventually finding the masks at a shop in Manhattan.

RUDY REDUX? If there is one criticism of White, it is that at times she may be too aggressive. In 1991, when White was chief prosecutor in Brooklyn, she reviewed an inquiry into New York Assembly Speaker Mel Miller and his law partner, Jay E. Adolf. Although Miller's lawyer, Gerald B. Lefcourt, argued the case was "at worst an ethical breach," White gave the go-ahead to indict both men for fraud and conspiracy stemming from a real estate deal they handled. A jury found the men guilty, but an appellate court later overturned the conviction, concluding that no crime had been committed. White says she was disappointed and "respectfully disagrees with the court's disagreement."

White's post has been a stepping-stone to bigger things for the politically ambitious. While she hasn't displayed the same devotion to headlines as former U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, now mayor of New York, White has been mentioned as a possible successor to Reno should the Attorney General tire of Washington or be asked to step down. (White was on the short list of candidates from which Bill Clinton selected Reno.) Since last August, White has chaired the U.S. Attorneys' committee advising Reno, a position that has taken her to Washington almost weekly.

But Washington isn't much on White's mind these days. She's too busy rooting for the Knicks and the Yankees and making plans to visit at least three baseball parks this summer. "My goal is to visit them all," says White. Knowing her, she probably will.

MARY JO WHITE'S AGGRESSIVE AGENDA

CONSOLIDATED EDISON CO. OF NEW YORK

Con Ed was charged in December with failing to report the release of more than 200 pounds of asbestos following a 1989 explosion.

STEVEN HOFFENBERG, FORMER CEO OF TOWERS FINANCIAL

Hoffenberg was charged in February with defrauding investors of more than $450 million and of obstructing justice.

KIDDER, PEABODY

Prosecutors are probing allegations of phantom trades in Kidder's government-bonds department. They want to know how far up the corporate ladder the scandal goes.

PRUDENTIAL SECURITIES

Prudential is under investigation for allegedly misleading consumers about certain investments, defrauding them of millions of dollars.

EMPIRE BLUE CROSS & BLUE SHIELD

The insurer is under scrutiny for allegedly misrepresenting its financial condition--a case that indicates White's expansive approach to law enforcement.Linda Himelstein in New York


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