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Sweet: How Penny Pritzker became the most public face of a private family

Penny Pritzker Michael Froman Barack Obama

Penny Pritzker, Michael Froman, Barack Obama

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Updated: June 4, 2013 6:45AM



WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s pick for commerce secretary, Chicago’s Penny Pritzker, is leaving the world she has dominated for decades — as a business tycoon, civic leader and philanthropist — to become, if confirmed, the storied clan’s first major public official.

“She has always been active on not-for-profit boards, and more recently the Chicago Board of Education,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told me Thursday, a little after Obama announced her appointment in a Rose Garden ceremony.

“She cares deeply about giving back. If not for a president that she respects and knows so well, then when? This felt both the right time and the perfect position.”

Pritzker now is the most public face of a private family, one of the nation’s wealthiest — and most charitable — who vaulted from the business sections to the politics pages as Obama’s 2008 national finance chair. Before that, the Pritzker in the political news had been mainly her younger brother, J.B., who in 1998 lost a Democratic primary House bid.

After the 2008 election, Pritzker was in the running to be commerce secretary, but withdrew her name. The Obama team was concerned about the optics; Obama was going to change how business was done in Washington and installing his billionaire finance chair would be sending the wrong message. Also, Pritzker’s own financial picture was complicated and would have been difficult to untangle.

With Pritzker’s finances streamlined in the past four years — and with her lower profile in the Obama 2012 re-election campaign, with Obama not worried about re-election and with a sense of carving out a unique Pritzker public service role — the time was right.

“She’s charged up,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former top strategist who was in the Rose Garden for the announcement. “And I don’t think whatever comes in the way of static is on her mind.”

The commerce appointment comes at a price the billionaire Pritzker is willing to pay: extensive financial disclosure and scrutiny by the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Science Committee. No date has been set for her confirmation hearings, though a spokesman for Committee Chair Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W-Va.) said Thursday the aim is for “as quick a confirmation process as possible.”

I thought Pritzker would have had to reveal at least a little something about her financial empire in the statement of economic interests she filed with the Cook County clerk last May 1 in connection with her Chicago Board of Education appointment. Turned out, she disclosed nothing.

Instead of listing the identity of any capital asset from which a gain of $5,000 or more was realized — as requested — Pritzker’s reply on the form was that if anyone wanted more information about the family’s “numerous capital assets” they should contact the Pritzker family office.

Can’t get away with that again.

Pritzker will have two main confirmation issues: the failure of Superior Bank, a Hinsdale savings and loan the Pritzker family controlled, shortchanging 1,406 depositors, and tax avoidance tactics employed by her various holdings.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement: “Every nominee’s offshore tax avoidance activities should be examined as part of the nomination process. If the Commerce Committee doesn’t explore those questions with the nominee, I plan to do so, but I hope the committee will at least give the tax history a serious look.”

As soon as Obama made the Pritzker announcement, the Republican National Committee went after her for her role in the 2001 bank failure with an email headlined, “The new addition to Obama’s economic team is another political ally with a history of controversial business practices.”

A 2008 Sun-Times story revealed a May 2001 letter that Pritzker wrote where she “appeared to be taking a leadership role in trying to revive the bank with an expanded push into subprime loans.” The bank failed a few months later.

Chicago attorney Clint Krislov represented the depositors who lost money and I asked him Thursday about the Pritzker appointment. Krislov — a Democratic donor — told me, “the signal we’re sending is if you are very wealthy you get a special deal and you get a Cabinet spot.”

GOP Senate reaction was lukewarm and Sen. Mark Kirk did not even bother putting out a statement for his home-state pick.

Sen. Dick Durbin, other Democrats and — most telling — a variety of influential GOP oriented business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all welcomed the Pritzker appointment.

Bottom line: Unless there is some surprise, Pritzker — who has the support of the business community — will be confirmed.

Pritzker turned 54 on Thursday and Obama took note of her birthday in his remarks.

“So happy birthday, Penny. For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation. It’s going to be great. “



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