U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White meets the press wearing a navy-blue suit fastened with a row of metal buckles that look like maximum-security dead bolts. At five feet tall, she’s a cuter version of the actress Linda Hunt, and to counter her diminutive size, she often dresses like a Prussian cavalry officer, with military-style epaulets and rows of brass buttons.
White walks briskly to the podium and peeps over a bank of microphones. She’s jubilant, having just won convictions in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa that killed more than 200 people, but it’s not her style to show it. Instead, as she explains how this verdict is a triumph for American democracy, her face remains a stern mask. Outside, the afternoon sky blackens, and a peal of thunder gives the press conference a suitably ominous coda.
Maybe the thunderstorm is just an angry reaction to the verdict from Allah, but a similar cloud has been hanging over White for some time. This moment of triumph should have been the capstone to her eight-year tenure as U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District. Under her watch, the office has been at the center of America’s campaign against international terror, and the guilty verdict for the embassy bombers is just one in a string of successful convictions that goes back to her first win, in 1994, against the World Trade Center bombers.
But as White slips back behind the blue curtain to celebrate with her staff in private, the press corps is actually less interested in her triumph against terror than in her next move in a far murkier arena. Everyone wants to know whether she is going to indict anyone over the last-minute pardons granted by President Bill Clinton. White, who likes to portray herself as resolutely apolitical, has become embroiled in the kind of politically charged case that she avoided throughout her career. Prosecuting terrorists is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, but investigating the man who gave you your job is something else entirely. Was this really how she wanted to end her term as U.S. Attorney?
For the past eight years, White has wielded colossal power within the Silvio J. Mollo federal building, a brown citadel in Police Plaza. At 53, she is the first female U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, a position formerly held by a long line of men who went on to become U.S. Senators, mayors, attorneys general, and secretaries of State and War. Her predecessors include Mayor Giuliani, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, and legal legends like Elihu Root, who went on to become Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of State and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and Henry Stimson, FDR’s secretary of War.
Despite her height, she was a fierce member of the women’s basketball team as a young prosecutor. “People checked their knees for teeth marks,” says one lawyer.
Mary Jo White is one of only a handful of Clinton appointees that the Bush administration has decided to keep on, but she may be wondering how lucky she really is to be staying. Investigating the Democrat who appointed her on behalf of a Republican regime possibly bent on revenge could be an uncomfortable spot for a woman who is used to appearing totally impartial.
In Washington, subpoena-weary ex-Clintonites have inadvertently been referring to White as “the independent counsel,” says Lanny J. Davis, who was Clinton’s special counsel between 1996 and 1998. “It seems rather smart of Attorney General Ashcroft to retain a Clinton appointee to do this investigation. Suppose he’d appointed a Jesse Helms favorite. He’d immediately face questions about whether he was engaged in an independent inquiry or a partisan agenda.”
Leaks about White’s investigation indicate that the former president might have less to worry about than his brother, Roger Clinton, who allegedly took money from some unsavory characters in exchange for promises that the president would grant them pardons. Roger is expected to plead the Fifth.
When Clinton appointed her to the nation’s premier prosecutor’s office, the Democrats could have claimed her as their own, but she has certainly not shown any favoritism in their direction now that the Republicans are in office. If she indicts either Clinton brother, White will finally be staking out a position on the political map that she’s been more comfortable tiptoeing across.
Bill Clinton isn’t the only big Democrat currently in her sights. In March, White took over the corruption investigation of Senator Robert Torricelli. After a special commission investigating Torricelli disbanded, the Justice Department turned the case over to the Southern District rather than to the federal prosecutor’s office in New Jersey, where the crimes allegedly occurred. It is unclear how the case landed on White’s plate. One rumor blames Torricelli himself, because he had been complaining that he would never get a fair shake from the New Jersey Feds. It is also possible that the Justice Department was worried Torricelli would get too fair a shake from a home-state prosecutor he had a hand in appointing.
Another prominent Democrat in White’s sights is Democratic Party chief Terry McAuliffe. After a long lull in investigating a money-laundering scandal involving former Teamsters president Ron Carey, White indicted Carey in late January on charges that he lied to investigators. McAuliffe is reportedly implicated in a scheme to trade support for Carey for union contributions to the Democrats in 1996. McAuliffe’s lawyer has said he’s been assured by federal prosecutors that McAuliffe was not a target of the probe. But the prospect of the Democratic Party chief’s being grilled before a grand jury remains. McAuliffe did not return calls for comment.
Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for Ashcroft, says “there’s no specific timetable” for White’s departure and insists the decision to retain White was made before the pardon investigation began. “This is an administration clearly bent on replacing U.S. Attorneys as fast as they can,” says former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, who worked with White in the beginning of her term. “The fact that they left her in place is a reflection of the respect they have for her and that they don’t feel she will sandbag the case. Mary Jo is somebody who will go where the truth is and let the chips fall where they may.”
Ironically, White was a significant player in the Clinton Justice Department – she was even on the shortlist for attorney general before Janet Reno was appointed. (Al Gore was also reportedly considering her as his attorney general.) She worked closely with Reno in the early days of the administration, shuttling between New York and Washington as chairperson of the attorney general’s advisory committee, representing the country’s 93 U.S. Attorneys. “She gave me her perspective on matters of ethics, cases, and policy, and it was extraordinarily helpful,” Reno says. Of White’s overall performance, Reno says, “She was splendid.”
White herself won’t talk to reporters about her motives – or anything else. At a recent public appearance to discuss the relationship between the press and the legal community, White admitted to having called the press only twice in her eight years in office. In each case, she was trying to get a New York newspaper to hold a story in order not to jeopardize an investigation or a witness. She was, she said, successful both times. “My batting average would be much less if I called more often,” she added.
The U.S. attorney’s office has always required a high comfort level with the boys in law enforcement, but White has stood out as a prosecutor’s prosecutor, happiest socializing with FBI agents and cops. “She is a woman in a man’s world, and she is in a world of very significant men, by and large, like Morgenthau and the police commissioners and the mayor,” says Bill Bratton. “She is a tough cookie. It’s understood that you don’t mess with her. She is somebody who I don’t think holds grudges, but she will certainly fight for her share of the pie. She is more than willing to get in the ring and slug it out, but she won’t hit you with a low blow.”
White is willing to use her size to charm the tough guys. “She’s small, with a big smile, very friendly and charming,” says defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt, who has known her for twenty years. “But she is no liberal. She’s pretty tough.” One of her closest friends describes her look as “all-American 10-year-old,” and she’s been known to boast about having some Cherokee blood. White has an easy, nonthreatening sense of humor. At one law-firm meeting run by her former partner George Lindsay (the brother of the late New York mayor), Lindsay was having trouble understanding her. “Mary Jo, I can’t hear you – will you please stand up?” he said. Her reply: “I already am.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan is a magnet for the nation’s most ambitious young lawyers, because they get high-profile trial experience. “The cases are big, interesting, and exciting,” says Gary Naftalis, a former assistant prosecutor and longtime friend of White’s. “And,” he adds, “you get FBI agents!”
Most federal prosecutors move on to lucrative private practice after five years or so in the federal building, but some never get the thrill of the hunt out of their blood. White is one of those. It is unclear what she will do if and when the Bush administration cuts her loose. She has reportedly turned down a federal judgeship, a job-for-life that most of her peers would be thrilled to accept. And she is unlikely to follow Giuliani into politics (though her righteousness and bellicosity are very Rudylike).
White may be one of the boys, but she is also a member in good standing of an old girls’ network made up of women who entered New York’s legal community at around the same time in the seventies, people like sex-crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein, State Supreme Court judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, and New York’s chief judge, Judith Kaye. Of that set, White is indisputably the least public. But her grim public manner belies her inner drive. She has a wild competitive streak that makes her the ideal captain of a team loaded with testosterone-pumped prosecutors and buzz-cut agents. She has a reputation as a woman who can take a joke but who knows when to come out swinging. “I would ordinarily say she is full of hell, if that description didn’t fit with being U.S. Attorney,” says former law partner Jim Goodale.
White is also a notoriously aggressive jock who jogs daily, has a tennis court at her country house, and is an obsessive baseball fan. Trying big cases, of course, is the ultimate team sport, one in which even a five-foot female can be Michael Jordan. “I think she genuinely loves being U.S. Attorney,” Naftalis says. “She wants to be where the action is. She is not afraid to take tough cases. She’s not timid and she’s not counting the days before her term ends.” And White’s gung ho, win-at-all-costs style is one reason some people think Clinton may be in trouble. Many current and former Southern District prosecutors regard the pardons of tax cheat Marc Rich and his partner as a flat-out dis to the U.S. Attorney’s office – which had indicted Rich originally.
In her scant public appearances, White has restrained the vital personality known to her family, colleagues, and friends. Her husband, John White, is head of the corporate-practice section at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. His ample salary is what enables White to stay in public office. White’s best friends are career women she met back in her days as a young prosecutor. This summer, White, her husband, and her son will join the families of two of these women, attorney Sara Moss and federal judge Barbara S. Jones, to do a Grand Canyon whitewater-rafting trip. This fall, she and a group of pals plan to do a women’s-only Outward Bound trip somewhere in the North Carolina woods.
White, Jones, and Moss became good friends in the federal prosecutor’s office in the late seventies. They bonded as a trio of hardball female prosecutors in the criminal division who all also happened to be short. White eventually gave the trio a nickname, “the Sids,” after Sid Vicious. “We thought it was hysterical that we were these tough prosecutors when we were this small,” Moss recalls. “We still have our Sids T-shirts. And everybody now thinks we’re just middle-aged ladies.” The three Sids still pal around, and last summer they went to a Tina Turner concert together.
White and her husband share an apartment in the city along with a weekend house. When dining out, she orders meat and potatoes, and will choose a beer no matter what expensive wine is offered. She does not, friends note, cook or make an effort to socialize with the city’s power set.
She is such a devoted Yankees fan that when John checked into the hospital for an emergency blood transfusion because of stomach ulcers, White made sure he was all right, then asked him for his ticket to that night’s Yankees game. She then called a pal, Southern District judge John Koeltl, and ran off to the stadium, leaving her husband to recuperate alone. Friends describe her as the dynamo of the couple. “He is the straight man, she is the cutup,” says Goodale. “He is very accomplished in his own right,” says Moss, “but he is also her great supporter and her closest confidant.” (John White says it is his practice not to be interviewed about his wife.) They have one teenage son, who seems to take after his parents. “They do ball games together,” says a friend. “You can ask him who played center field for the Red Sox in 1931 and he can answer it. He’s been able to answer it since he was 10. I have a sense that baseball is all that’s talked about around the family dinner table.”
For years, White buzzed around Manhattan on a motorcycle. She once even arrived for a tennis match against a male colleague on her motorcycle with “I Am Woman” blaring from a boom box. And despite her height, she was a fierce member of the women’s basketball team as a young prosecutor. “People checked their knees for teeth marks,” says one defense lawyer.
Born in Kansas City as Mary Jo Monk, White was raised in the lily-white Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Virginia. In the fifties, McLean was equal parts Virginia redneck and government spook. The sleepy town was suddenly filling up with families of Pentagon bureaucrats and employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, which broke ground for its headquarters in nearby Langley in the late fifties. White’s father was an attorney and her mother a homemaker. White met her future husband in eighth grade and married him in 1970, just after she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
After getting a master’s in psychology at the New School, she went to law school and graduated at the top of her class at Columbia in 1974. Her first job was clerking for a federal judge, Marvin Frankel, a notoriously difficult boss. (White immediately distinguished herself by having the guts to tell him whenever she disagreed with him.) In 1978, she was hired by U.S. Attorney Robert Fiske as a line assistant in the Southern District. (White later had a hand in Reno’s appointment of Fiske, a moderate Republican, as the first independent counsel to investigate Clinton; he was subsequently replaced by Ken Starr.) White handled her first terrorism case at that time, prosecuting a group of violent anti-Castro radicals called the Omega 7. “We absolutely knew she was a star,” recalls Moss. “She did twice as many cases as anybody else; she was smart and fast. She had real brainpower and judgment. But she was down to earth.”
As a young prosecutor, White could be merciless in spite of her affable front, according to Lefcourt. He recalls a case in which a client of his, a lawyer, was being tried for hitting a federal marshal. The lawyer’s career hung in the balance, and he was sobbing when a guilty verdict was read out. But then the jury foreman announced to the judge that a mistake had been made and that actually they had found the man innocent. White, who was not even involved in the case but was in the audience to show support for the marshal, immediately stood up and objected. The judge overruled her, but White appealed the case because the jury had initially used the word guilty. She lost.
Jim Goodale, a First Amendment lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton, lured White away from the prosecutor’s office in 1983. There she tried cases for clients like the New York Times. “She was a super-super-superstar,” Goodale says. White defended, among others, Times columnist Sydney Schanberg in a libel case, and she was one of the first women to make partner at Debevoise.
White spent seven years in private practice but was clearly hankering to return to public service. She casually courted local power brokers of both parties who could help her get her dream job: U.S. Attorney. She could often be found in the company of former New York Law Journal owner Jerry Finkelstein, an old-style backroom operator who takes pride in making connections between lawyers and pols. “She would sit there and drink beer with Finkelstein,” says one of White’s former partners. “The average large-firm lawyer would never hang out with him, but Mary Jo can.”
In 1990, Gary Naftalis recommended White to Eastern District U.S. Attorney Andy Maloney (a Bush I appointee), who immediately hired her as his chief assistant. “I have been accused of being the original male chauvinist,” says Maloney. “I was looking for a chief assistant. She was making a half-million a year at the time. I met her at the University Club and she ordered a beer instead of a white wine like you ladies usually like. The rest is history. She became the first female chief assistant in the New York City area. The police commissioners love her. The FBI loves her.”
FBI agents and police commissioners do indeed heap praise on her. “To me, Mary Jo is a prosecutor with a capital p,” says FBI assistant director Barry Mawn, head of the New York office. “She’s tough because she’s thorough. She looks at every aspect of the investigation, and if anything is there, she will pursue it until she is satisfied.”
“I think she genuinely loves being U.S. Attorney. She wants to be where the action is. She’s not timid and she’s not counting the days before her term ends.”
White may love cops, but she is no Giuliani. “She doesn’t use the office the way Rudy did,” Lefcourt says. “There is none of that politicking.” Her record on pursuing cases against the NYPD isn’t notably aggressive, but White is not a knee-jerk supporter of the police; her office is currently handling a racial-profiling case against the NYPD. Yet like Giuliani, White can get mean when cornered. In one widely reported incident, she impressed Bratton and many others by standing up to Morgenthau in the perennial turf battle over big cases between the district attorney’s office and the federal prosecutor in Manhattan. Morgenthau was working a major securities-fraud case in 1997 when White swooped in and indicted one of Morgenthau’s informants in order to get the case back into her jurisdiction. “She stood up to Morgenthau in a strong fashion,” says former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “And people are aware of that.”
Finkelstein introduced her to Jonathan Bush, the former president’s brother, and they became tennis buddies. The Republicans at that time saw her as one of their own. The original plan was for White to be nominated to Brooklyn’s Eastern District office by Senator Al D’Amato when Bush I was still in the White House. To ease the way for her, Maloney resigned a few months before his term was out so that White could take over as interim U.S. Attorney in 1992. But when Clinton was elected, the more prestigious Southern District position in Manhattan opened up, and since Clinton was looking for a black or female appointee, White’s name came up. Once again, White’s friends in high places – this time, Democrats like Bernie Nussbaum, Clinton’s first White House counsel, and Senator Daniel Moynihan – put her over the top. Predictably, there were no objections from Republican senator Al D’Amato, who could have vetoed her appointment.
White still meets regularly with the old boys’ crowd at the University Club. Finkelstein says he and his buddies choose more exclusive seating when she’s expected, because they don’t want her to have to meet someone she might rather not know. “We worry that someone might walk up to the table who is under investigation,” he says. Although they all think of her as “a regular guy,” Finkelstein says the men usually peel the Cohiba labels off their cigars before she arrives.
White is said to be proudest of the indictment and convictions of more than 24 people involved in global terrorism during her term. The convictions a few weeks ago of four men in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa that killed 224 and injured over 4,000 were only the latest in an ongoing probe that dates back to the World Trade Center bombing. White and her team of prosecutors, led by assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, successfully prosecuted the blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman for his role in the World Trade Center bombing; and they have charged Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, with masterminding several bombing plots. The World Trade Center investigation led White’s office to Bin Laden, and White had a sealed indictment just months before the African-embassy bombings. The office is also currently investigating yet another terrorist act thousands of miles away, last year’s bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen.
Passage of federal anti-terrorism laws during the nineties legally extended the reach of the New York FBI and prosecutors, and White has been aggressive in getting and keeping the investigations in the Southern District. “The laws address the protection of U.S. citizens overseas, and we now have the capacity to investigate overseas,” says the FBI’s Mawn. “In the eighties, we just looked at New York City. Now we look at what happens in the world. The FBI has the jurisdiction to do it, and Mary Jo is very aggressive in those types of investigations and prosecutions. That has led to her office being in the forefront of conducting these extraterritorial investigations.”
The other big innovation at the Southern District during White’s tenure is the new intensity with which corporate white-collar crimes are prosecuted. Defense attorneys who handle such cases complain that White has pursued a tough policy of driving a wedge between corporate entities and individual employees to win convictions and settlements. The new hard line was initiated after stiff new corporate-sentencing guidelines went into effect.
White’s hardball position has resulted in corporations’ routinely turning over internal investigations and refusing to pay legal fees for individual employees under federal investigation, or even firing employees who plead the Fifth Amendment. For example, in the early nineties, when Prudential Securities was under investigation for allegedly defrauding investors, Prudential wouldn’t advance money to current or former employees to cover legal bills if they pleaded the Fifth or otherwise failed to cooperate with the government. Prudential eventually avoided indictment and paid a $330 million settlement, a sum that White personally negotiated. She also oversaw Operation Uptick, a federal investigation into the mob’s Wall Street connections, charged billionaire investor Martin Armstrong with a securities-fraud scheme involving half a billion dollars, and successfully sued Con Edison for concealing evidence of asbestos contamination in a Gramercy Park explosion.
Fred Haefetz, a white-collar defense attorney, says the Southern District is not the only federal jurisdiction taking a tougher stance in corporate cases, but that White’s office led the way. “With respect to corporations under investigation or whose officers are under investigation, they insist upon a waiver of privileges and rights, and in my opinion it’s too aggressive. The Southern District has utilized all the leverage it has.” Says another attorney familiar with these cases: “Corporate employees still have a constitutional right against self-incrimination, but apparently they don’t have a right to employment.”
The big question now is how long the Bush administration will keep White on the job. Nobody thinks the new president will appoint her for another full term, although she probably would accept such an offer. She will most likely be leaving before the end of the year, once the Clinton-pardon investigation has been completed.
White’s next move could depend on her standing within the new administration. She’d like to remain in public service, and was even rumored to be interested in the FBI directorship. Another intriguing scenario has her running for Manhattan district attorney if Robert Morgenthau, who will be 82 next month, decides not to run for another term in the Fall. (This would not be unprecedented – Morgenthau himself was Southern District U.S. Attorney from 1961 to 1970.) She could always go back into private practice and further enlarge the White-family bank accounts. But friends say she’d find private practice dull and predict she’ll be back in public service when the right opportunity comes along, no matter who’s in charge. If the Democrats get back in power, she could still be attorney general after all. Though it all might depend on what she does with one particular case this summer.