Oh walked away from the job as Gensler faced growing concern from progressives on Capitol Hill and in the activism community about his decision to hire a long-time corporate lawyer for one of the government’s most powerful posts for overseeing the finance industry.
The episode marked a surprising political backlash from progressives who had cheered Biden’s nomination of Gensler, after the former Goldman Sachs partner emerged as a tough banking regulator when he chaired the Commodity Futures Trading Commission during the Obama administration.
Before it was announced last week that she would join the SEC, Oh worked for two decades at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where she represented Fortune 100 companies facing government investigations, with clients including Bank of America and ExxonMobil.
Oh was part of a legal team defending ExxonMobil in a lawsuit seeking to hold the company liable for murder and torture by the Indonesian military during civil unrest between 1999 and 2001. Villagers said ExxonMobil should face liability because it hired soldiers to guard natural gas facilities in the country.
Following complaints about the conduct of ExxonMobil’s lawyers, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on Monday admonished Oh and others defending the company. The lawyers for the villagers had told the court that ExxonMobil’s defense team had characterized them as “agitated, disrespectful and unhinged.”
The SEC did not respond to a request for comment about when they were aware of the issues involving Oh and ExxonMobil. Paul Weiss Chairman Brad Karp defended Oh in a statement: “Alex is a person of the utmost integrity and a consummate professional, with a strong ethical code.”
Following Oh’s resignation, Gensler announced that SEC lawyer Melissa Hodgman will return to the role of acting director of the agency’s enforcement division. She had served in the position before Oh’s appointment.
Oh’s departure followed a letter that three leading progressive advocacy groups sent to Gensler on Tuesday saying that they were “surprised and disappointed” by his decision to recruit her. They urged him to withdraw her hiring.
Demand Progress, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Revolving Door Project took aim in their letter at Oh’s years of work at law firm Paul Weiss.
The groups questioned whether Oh “will change her entire legal philosophy toward fully enforcing the very laws and regulations whose enforcement she has built a career of defending against.”
“We therefore ask you to immediately reconsider your decision to name Alex Oh for this position, and instead to select an attorney with a proven track record of public-oriented service, of which there is no shortage,” they said. Oh spent four years working as a federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York before turning to corporate work.
Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, said Wednesday that “Gary Gensler and the SEC dodged a bullet in avoiding having a seemingly overzealous defender of ExxonMobil’s interests over Indonesian villagers entrusted with the powerful SEC Enforcement Division.”
The complaints from leading progressive groups came as some of Gensler’s allies on Capitol Hill had also begun to question his decision to hire Oh.
“There’s a lot of skepticism that someone who spent two decades helping big corporations dodge the SEC is the person to lead an aggressive revival of SEC enforcement,” said one aide to a progressive Senate Democrat before Oh’s resignation. “A lot of people will be closely watching what she does and now watching Gensler more closely, too.”
The concerns expressed about Oh stem in part from long-running disappointment among progressive groups and lawmakers about lax Wall Street enforcement by the SEC, particularly in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Former SEC Chair Mary Jo White — an Obama nominee who was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New…