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SEC on the prowl for rule breakers big and small, White says

SEC Chair Mary Jo White testifies at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill July 30, 2013. REUTERS/Jo
SEC Chair Mary Jo White testifies at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill July 30, 2013. REUTERS/Jo

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. securities regulator on Wednesday placed everyone from auditors to fund board members on notice, saying her agency plans to look for violations in all corners of the market, from major Wall Street investment firms to boiler room operations.

"Minor violations that are overlooked or ignored can feed bigger ones, and, perhaps more importantly, can foster a culture where laws are increasingly treated as toothless guidelines," Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White said in a speech at a conference about SEC enforcement issues.

"I believe it is important to pursue even the smallest infractions."

White, a former federal prosecutor, has made tough enforcement a cornerstone of her chairmanship at the SEC since she took the helm of the agency in April.

She has already broken from the SEC's long-time practice of allowing defendants to settle cases without admitting or denying charges, saying the SEC will seek to extract admissions if the circumstances are right.

Just last month, she also said the SEC planned to step up efforts to bring charges against individuals and would not shy away from seeking large penalties against executives and companies.

White on Wednesday said she believes that the "Broken Windows" theory that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani applied to his crackdown on crime in the city should also apply to the SEC's enforcement program.

Under that theory, making sure that the urban environment is well maintained and that broken windows are fixed helps to deter even more serious crimes.

"We are looking for the 'broken windows' in our markets - and not overlooking the small violations to avoid breeding an environment of indifference to our rules," she said.

White said the SEC will still continue pursuing major cases against the big names on Wall Street, such as the high-profile matters brought this year against JPMorgan Chase & Co and hedge fund tycoon Steven A. Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors.

However, she also singled out several other target areas where she said the SEC plans to dedicate its resources.

One focal point in particular, she told the audience, is auditors.

"Auditors serve as critical gatekeepers - experts charged with making sure that the processes that companies use to prepare and report financial information are ones that are built on strength and integrity," White said.

Just last week, the SEC said it had launched a new imitative known as "Operation Broken Gate." The operation snagged three auditors, whom the SEC accused of failing to comply with U.S. standards during their reviews of public companies' books.

"You should expect more of these cases," White said.

In addition, she sought to put fund board members on notice that they have a fiduciary obligation to uphold.

"Being a director or in any similar role where you owe a fiduciary duty is not for the uninitiated or the faint of heart," she said.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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