Pritzker sails through Commerce confirmation hearing
BY LYNN SWEET Twitter: @lynnsweet May 23, 2013 8:04PM
Updated: June 25, 2013 6:33AM
WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary nominee Penny Pritzker breezed through her confirmation hearing on Thursday with both top senators on the Commerce committee, Democrat Jay Rockefeller and Republican John Thune, predicting she will be confirmed by the full Senate.
Pritzker received a friendly reception from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Only 12 of the 24 members showed up to quiz her — seven Democrats and five Republicans.
Her hearing lasted a little more than two hours, included no fireworks and only light questioning on the three topics where she could have faced a grilling: the failure of the Superior Savings and Loan in Hinsdale, offshore tax avoidance strategies employed by family trusts, and stormy labor relations between Hyatt Hotels and the union representing hotel workers.
The hearing room in the Russell Senate Office Building was full of red T-shirt wearing members of UNITE HERE!, the union representing Hyatt Hotel workers.
The billionaire Chicago business tycoon and philanthropist, a member of one of the nation’s richest families, is President Barack Obama’s most important fund-raiser. Pritkzer, as Obama’s 2008 national finance chair, raised enough money to get his campaign off the ground and make his candidacy viable.
“I suspect she will do pretty well when it comes to a vote,” Thune said after the hearing. “There is pretty good support on both sides for her nomination, barring anything unforeseen.” Under Senate rules, one senator can place a “hold” on a nomination.
Rockefeller, from West Virginia, said afterward, “I think she did great; I mean she was so thoroughly prepared.” He said a committee vote is expected next month.
Pritzker did not address the failure of Superior in her opening statement.
Thune told reporters he received answers to written questions he posed earlier about the closing of Superior. However, those exchanges are not yet part of any public record and were not released on Thursday. Thune said he would pose additional written questions.
Thune, who represents South Dakota, was the only one to ask about Superior and offshore trusts.
Pritzker testified in response to a Thune question that when Superior closed, the family tried “to make this situation right” as “my family voluntarily agreed to pay $450 million.”
Still, 1,406 depositors lost money.
Thune asked her: “What do you have to say to those depositors who lost significant sums of money because of this venture, and what lessons did you learn from your experience at Superior Bank that will inform your role as secretary of Commerce, if you’re confirmed?”
Pritzker replied: “I regret the failure of Superior Bank. The lessons that I’ve learned are really about good management, good governance structure, the importance of diversification and risk management, transparency and having a solid governance.’’
As the hearing wrapped up, Thune asked Pritzker about offshore trusts, saying he was channeling Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Grassley has been the most vocal critic of what he has called “offshore tax avoidance,” but he is not a member of the Commerce panel.
Thune asked Pritzker if it’s “hypocritical for the president to nominate Cabinet members who’ve benefitted from offshore tax havens when he’s criticized that practice for others.”
Pritzker replied: “I am the beneficiary of offshore family trusts that were set up when I was a little girl. I didn’t create them. I don’t direct them. I don’t control them. I have asked the trustee to appoint and — remove themselves and to appoint a U.S. trustee.”
After that, Thorne turned to another issue: South Dakota honey producers and Chinese “dumping” honey in U.S. markets.
Said Thune to Pritzker: “We would welcome your help with that particular issue.”