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Wanted: ‘Sheriff of Wall Street.’ Letitia James Says No Thanks, and Her Rivals Pounce.

The remark was music to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ears.

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Wanted: ‘Sheriff of Wall Street.’ Letitia James Says No Thanks, and Her Rivals Pounce.
Jeffery C. Mays
, New York Times

The remark was music to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ears.

Dan Donovan, who was running for New York attorney general in 2010, said he did not plan to be known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street,” a sobriquet that Eliot Spitzer earned when he occupied the office.

“What do you mean you don’t want to be the Sheriff of Wall Street?” Cuomo said during a November 2010 rally. “The job description is, you’re the Sheriff of Wall Street. If you don’t want the job, don’t run for the job.”

That sentiment could come back to haunt Cuomo’s preferred candidate for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, Letitia James.

James, the New York City public advocate, said to The New York Times that it was “critically important” that she “not be known as the ‘Sheriff on Wall Street.'” Her remark drew immediate criticism from her Democratic opponents.

Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law professor, said on Twitter that she “can’t wait to be known as the Sheriff of Wall Street, the Nightwatchwoman, the Avenger: you name it.”

“I’m the only one who’s ready to be the Sheriff of Wall Street. You can’t be the Sheriff of Wall Street if you don’t want to be,” Teachout said in an interview. “You can’t be the Sheriff of Wall Street if you are awash in corporate cash and voted to roll back Dodd-Frank regulations,” she added, referring to the vote of another Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney to roll back regulations put in place after the 2008 financial crisis.

Maloney, New York’s first openly gay congressman, called James’ remarks “weird” and “disqualifying” in an interview.

“You sure as hell better be the Sheriff of Wall Street because that is the job title. You have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Maloney said about juggling other types of enforcement as the attorney general.

James “either doesn’t understand the office or have the right priorities,” Maloney said.

Maloney, one of two New York state congressional Democrats to vote to change Dodd-Frank regulations, said his vote was mostly about loosening restrictions on smaller banks and that it would not stop him from prosecuting financial fraud.

“You want to be an honest sheriff and you want to be fair, but you are the cop on the beat. To say otherwise is strange,” Maloney said.

Despite the controversy, James is leading in fundraising among Democratic candidates, according to campaign finance reports. James raised more than $434,000 and now has $1.2 million on hand. Maloney has received contributions of more than $696,000, with a closing balance of $795,000.

In a statement, James said she was willing to take on Wall Street.

“The attorney general cannot be a one-trick pony. I will be laser-focused on taking on Wall Street abuses — I don’t need a moniker for that,” James said in the statement.

But she also said other issues such as gun violence, the environment and the immigration policies of the Trump administration deserved attention.

“Anyone suggesting otherwise is doing a disservice to the powers of the office and the people of New York,” James said in her statement.

Not everyone had an issue with her reluctance to be a so-called sheriff. (Cuomo’s campaign declined to comment.) There is an effort to rein in the powers of the Martin Act, the expansive law used to prosecute some of the largest firms on Wall Street for fraud.

“Given the huge contribution of Wall Street to the city economy and tax rolls, it makes sense that she would want to be a balanced and thoughtful regulator as opposed to a gunslinger,” Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, said in an interview.

But for some good government groups, James’ remarks raised eyebrows, given New York prosecutors’ long history of using the Martin Act to go after fraud.

“We would welcome a New York attorney general who prides themselves on being the Sheriff of Wall Street,” Bartlett Naylor, a financial policy advocate for Public Citizen, a liberal consumer rights organization, said in an interview.

The role of state prosecutors is more important than ever given the rollback of Dodd-Frank legislation and the less rigorous regulatory environment encouraged by the Trump administration, Naylor said.

“The key decision-makers on Wall Street are subject to New York state law,” Naylor says. “The New York attorney general looks out of their window, and there is Wall Street.”

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