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DOJ official says groundwork laid for more white-collar crime enforcement

The head of the Justice Department division in charge of prosecuting white-collar crime—who is stepping down later this month—says she's leaving behind plenty of big financial cases for her successor to tackle.

"I do think my successor will have a lot to do, and that's good," said Mythili Raman, acting assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Criminal Division, in an exclusive interview with CNBC.

Mythili Raman, acting assistant attorney general of the criminal division with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Mythili Raman, acting assistant attorney general of the criminal division with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Raman announced last month she will leave the Justice Department after 18 years, but says she has not yet decided her future plans.

She became acting head of the Criminal Division last year after Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer left for private practice. President Barack Obama has nominated former Enron Task Force Director Leslie Caldwell to be permanent head of the division. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote for Thursday on her confirmation.

Raman served as Breuer's deputy and was at the heart of the department's decision making following the 2008 financial crisis. Despite criticism the department has not been tough enough on financial fraud, it's the area she's proudest of, she said.

"We've not only done a lot in the last several years, but we've really laid the groundwork for even increased enforcement in the years to come," Raman said.

"We are prosecutors to the core. Our DNA is such that if a crime was committed, we bring charges. When there's the evidence to support a charge and sustain a conviction, we will bring charges. When there is not that kind of evidence, we won't—and shouldn't."

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Bill Varie | Photolibrary | Getty Images

Prosecution of high-profile individuals?

Lack of charges against high-profile individuals involved in the financial crisis has even drawn criticism from a sitting federal judge—Jed S. Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, himself a former prosecutor. Writing in the New York Review of Books earlier this year, Rakoff called it "one of the most egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years."

Rakoff blamed decisions at Justice Department headquarters, including spreading investigations among U.S. Attorneys' offices with limited experience prosecuting securities fraud cases, He also cited an emphasis on prosecuting corporations over individuals.

Raman disagrees. "That's just wrong," she said. "There is no decision to bring one type of case over another."

She cited several examples of prosecutions, and pointed to multiple cases in the government's LIBOR investigation involving rigging of the benchmark lending rate. In the case of UBS, the department signed a non-prosecution agreement with the parent company, a subsidiary pled guilty to criminal charges and two traders were charged.

And in the insider trading case of hedge fund giant SAC Capital, she noted, the firm pled guilty and multiple individuals were charged.

"I think our track record makes abundantly clear that that's what we do in every area of enforcement," she said.

But others disagree.

An activist group, Better Markets, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C. last month challenging a $13 billion civil settlement reached last year between the department and JPMorgan Chase over mortgage-backed securities violations. Among other things, the suit alleges the settlement fails to address individuals' misconduct in the financial crisis.

But Raman said the settlement does not bar the government from prosecuting individuals. And while she would not address the JPMorgan investigation specifically, she said the financial crisis investigations are not necessarily over.

"When you look fairly over the last several years, I think one of the lessons learned is that you can always freeze history in a moment in time and say 'This happened, you haven't charged individuals.' But if you wait and see, there are often enforcement actions taken some months or even some years later."

Battling budget pressures

Raman leaves after a year of intense budget pressures at the Justice Department. Much of her time as acting head of the criminal division was marked by deep cuts under so-called sequestration.

"We can't do our jobs as well or as quickly when we have fewer resources," she said.

Last month, following a Congressional budget deal, Attorney General Eric Holder lifted a three-year hiring freeze, which Raman said will make a big difference. "Our bread and butter is our people."

The White House budget unveiled Tuesday includes $27.4 billion for the Justice Department—a modest increase over last year—including $681 million for financial fraud enforcement.

Raman says the money is critical. "Resources matter for financial fraud enforcement. And hopefully the department will have the support it needs to do that job well," she said.

—By CNBC's Scott Cohn. Follow him on Twitter @ScottCohnCNBC