The S.E.C.’s director of enforcement stepped down just days after taking the job.
By Matthew Goldstein
Gary Gensler’s tenure leading the Securities and Exchange Commission is off to a rocky start: Alex Oh, who he named just days ago to run the regulator’s enforcement division, has resigned following a federal court ruling in a case involving one of her corporate clients, ExxonMobil.
In her resignation letter on Wednesday, Ms. Oh said the matter would be “an unwelcome distraction to the important work” of the enforcement division.
Ms. Oh’s resignation letter followed a ruling on Monday from Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia over the conduct of Exxon’s lawyers during a civil case involving claims of human rights abuses in the Aceh province of Indonesia.
According to Judge Lamberth’s ruling, Exxon’s lawyers claimed without providing evidence that the plaintiffs’ attorneys were “agitated, disrespectful and unhinged” during a deposition. He ordered Exxon’s lawyers to show why penalties were not warranted for those comments.
The ruling did not single out any lawyers by name. Ms. Oh was one of the lead lawyers for Exxon.
The judge’s order also granted the plaintiffs’ motion that Exxon pay “reasonable expenses” associated with litigating their request for sanctions and with an accompanying motion to compel additional testimony from Exxon related to the deposition.
Ms. Oh’s resignation letter did not mention the Exxon case by name, but a person briefed on the matter confirmed that the ruling from Judge Lamberth had prompted her to step down.
Ms. Oh, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who worked for the elite firm Paul, Weiss for nearly two decades, was picked by Mr. Gensler to oversee the S.E.C.’s 1,000-attorney enforcement division on April 22. The same day, she filed a notice with the court in the Exxon case saying she had withdrawn from the matter because she had resigned from the firm to join the federal government.
The civil litigation involving Exxon is nearly two decades old and involves allegations by the plaintiffs that Exxon’s security personnel “inflicted grievous injuries” on them. The lawsuit was brought under the federal Alien Tort Claims Act, which enables residents of other countries to sue in the United States for damages arising from violations of U.S. treaties or “the law of nations.”
Mr. Gensler said in a news release that Melissa Hodgman, who had been the enforcement division’s acting chief since January, will return to that position. Ms. Hodgman has been an enforcement attorney with the agency since 2008. He thanked Ms. Oh for her “willingness to serve the country.”
Ms. Oh could not immediately be reached for comment.
Brad Karp, chairman of Paul, Weiss, said the firm would not comment on the matter because it involved ongoing litigation. “Alex is a person of the utmost integrity and a consummate professional with a strong ethical code,” he added.
Ms. Oh is a highly respected lawyer, but her selection had been criticized by the Revolving Door Project, a good-government group, because she had been in private practice for so many years and had defended some of the largest U.S. companies.
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