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Under New Chief, a Feistier S.E.C. Emerges

"First the Securities and Exchange Commission rejected a settlement with a high-flying hedge fund manager, Philip A. Falcone. Then it charged another billionaire trader, Steven A. Cohen. By late Friday afternoon, it had accused one of the nation's largest cities, Miami, of securities fraud.

"It was a busy 24 hours for the S.E.C., the federal regulator once blamed for missing the warning signs of the financial crisis and the vast Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Bernard L. Madoff.

"The flurry of moves appeared to signal that the agency was striking a harder line with Wall Street under its new chairwoman, Mary Jo White. While it is still early in her tenure, and the agency faces lingering criticism for its close ties to Wall Street, Ms. White has taken several steps to crack down on financial fraud.

“'They’re now demonstrating an aggressiveness that is highly unusual,' said Thomas A. Sporkin, who spent nearly 20 years in the S.E.C’s enforcement unit until last year, when he moved to the law firm Buckley Sandler. 'It’s rare to see a day like today.'"

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"Her recent actions have started to assuage some concerns. Already, Ms. White has moved to address a central criticism of the agency: that it allows defendants to neither “admit nor deny” wrongdoing when reaching settlements. The leaders of the S.E.C. enforcement unit detailed the policy shift in a memo last month, saying there might be cases that “justify requiring the defendant’s admission of allegations in our complaint or other acknowledgment of the alleged misconduct as part of any settlement.”

“'It’s welcome news for the American people desperate for a tougher S.E.C.,' said Dennis M. Kelleher, who runs Better Markets, an advocacy group critical of Wall Street. He said, however, that the agency still had a high bar to prove it could be a tough enforcer. 'Two hedge fund cases are good, but not good enough,' he said.

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