For months, Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has been under fire for a belated response to market upheavals stemming from the subprime fiasco and for being soft on big corporations. He's eager to dispel his critics. In his 10th-floor office, with a postcard view of the Capitol, Cox appears fit and buoyant despite a recent bout with a rare cancer of the thymus gland. He denies any suggestion that he has oriented the S.E.C. away from tough enforcement and investor protection. "I spend more time on enforcement than on any aspect of my job," he says.
But a look at his record since he became chairman in 2005 suggests that, behind the scenes, Cox has engineered a series of procedural and tactical changes, effectively reducing the S.E.C. enforcement division's power. The division, one of four in the S.E.C., investigates and litigates violations of securities laws. Under the new rules, enforcement staffers no longer have the freedom to negotiate fines against public companies in a select group of cases. Instead, the commissioners--three Republicans and two Democrats--dictate the maximum penalty the enforcement division can seek. Since the rule was imposed, penalties have dropped. For example, in March, the commission approved a fine of $10 million against pharmaceuticals manufacturer Biovail, significantly less than the enforcement staff had sought.