SEC Nominee Played Big Role In Fraud Case Involving PE

  • Was U.S. attorney in Manhattan
  • Executives concealed expenses
  • Since at Debevoise law firm

White was nominated by President Barack Obama on Jan. 24 to chair the SEC. The Senate will take up the question in the months ahead. White has spent the past decade as a partner heading the litigation practice of the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, which has a thriving private-equity practice. Its clients include Clayton Dubilier & Rice, Harbourvest Partners, J.C. Flowers, North Castle Partners, Oaktree Capital Management and Providence Equity Partners, according to a fact sheet on the firm’s Web site. The firm has more than 650 lawyers in offices around the world.

Debevoise & Plimpton also represents the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, the industry’s lobbying group in Washington, D.C. A spokesman for the organization, while confirming that the firm represents it on Dodd-Frank and other regulatory issues, said he was not acquainted with White’s record.

White is best known for being U.S. attorney in the southern district of New York for nearly nine years, until early 2002, the only woman ever to hold the post. While there, she made her name prosecuting terrorists—including a 1998 indictment of Osama Bin Laden, charging the Saudi exile in a 238 count document of participating in the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and other attacks on Americans. She also oversaw the office’s prosecution of “Teflon don” John Gotti.

In one corporate fraud case, White’s office indicted four executives of Aurora Foods, including its former CEO and CFO, in 2001. The grand jury charged the executives, whose company produces Duncan Hines baking mixes, Log Cabin and Mrs. Butterworth’s syrups, Mrs. Paul frozen fish and seafood, Lender’s bagels and Aunt Jemima frozen breakfast products, with allegedly concealing $43.7 million of expenses in order to inflate the company’s earnings in 1998 and 1999, as sister news service Reuters reported at the time. “The indictment charges an earnings management scheme that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘cooking the books,’” White said in announcing the charges.

The charges came as a blow to Fenway Partners and McCown Deleeuw & Co., which had teamed up with operations executive Ian Wilson to launch the Aurora Foods platform in late 1996 with the purchase of the Mrs. Butterworth’s brand. In the wake of the federal charges (along with a civil complaint filed by the SEC), Wilson pleaded guilty and was fined $1 million and sentenced to 33 months in prison, while Aurora Foods ended up in Chapter 11, where it was rescued by J.W. Childs Associates and combined with Pinnacle Foods, which was then backed by JPMorgan Partners (the firm now known as CCMP Capital Advisors). The Blackstone Group LP bought Pinnacle Foods in April 2007, and the company filed IPO paperwork in January.

Since her return to the private sector, White has focused on white collar criminal defense, internal investigations, health care enforcement and compliance and consumer finance, according to her profile page at the Debevoise & Plimpton Web site.

But if White has experience investigating corporate crime, her credentials as a policymaker on market issues remain untested, although she has served as a director of the Nasdaq Stock Exchange. Early priorities are likely to include the ongoing implementation of Dodd-Frank regulations, as well as new issues raised by last year’s JOBS Act. Mary Schapiro, who stepped down as head of the commission in December, left without settling key private-equity provisions of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, such as a relaxation of the prohibition against marketing funds outside the realm of accredited investors.