President Obama looks to longtime fundraiser Penny Pritzker after announcing her nomination to run the Commerce Department and that of economic adviser Michael Froman, left, as the next U.S. Trade Representative. ( AP/Carolyn Kaster)
The love fest between Barack Obama and his top fundraiser Penny Pritzker that has led to her being nominated as Commerce secretary would not be so unseemly if they both just confessed that they did it for the money. Her money, not his, financed his rise to the White House from less promising days back in Chicago.
"Without Penny Pritzker, it is unlikely that Barack Obama ever would have been elected to the United States Senate or the presidency," according to a gushing New York Times report last year that read like the soaring jacket copy of a steamy romance novel. "When she first backed him during his 2004 Senate run, she was No. 152 on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. He was a long-shot candidate who needed her support and imprimatur. Mr. Obama and Ms. Pritzker grew close, sometimes spending weekends with their families at her summer home."
But don't sell the lady short; she wasn't swept along on some kind of celebrity joyride. Pritzker, the billionaire heir to part of the Hyatt Hotels' fortune, has long been first off an avaricious capitalist, and if she backed Obama, it wasn't for his looks. Never one to rest on the laurels of her immense inherited wealth, Pritzker has always wanted more. That's what drove her to run Superior Bank into the subprime housing swamp that drowned the institution's homeowners and depositors alike before she emerged richer than before.
Pritzker and her family had acquired the savings and loan with the help of $600 million in tax credits. She became the new bank's chairwoman and ended up as a director of the holding company that owned it. Under her leadership, Superior specialized in subprime lending, hustling folks with meager means and poor credit into high interest loans that were bundled into the toxic securities that wrecked the U.S. economy.
As federal regulators began to move in on her bank after it had dangerously inflated the value of its toxic assets, Pritzker assured its employees: "Our commitment to subprime has never been stronger." Two months later, the bank was pronounced insolvent. At the time, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s inspector general report concluded, "The failure of Superior Bank was directly attributable to the board of directors and executive management ignoring sound risk diversification principles, as evidenced by excessive concentration in residual assets related to subprime lending. ..."
No biggie. In announcing her appointment, Obama joked, "For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation. It's going to be great." It's the same sort of joke he could have cracked in appointing Citigroup alum Jack Lew to be Treasury secretary.
It is deeply revealing that in the midst of the continuing cycle of misery brought on by the chicanery of the financial community, two key Cabinet positions dealing with business practices will likely be occupied by people who specialized in those financial rip-offs.
For Pritzker, as with the confirmation of Lew, the fix is in. The Republicans don't dare push back too hard on shady business practices that their deregulation legislation endorsed, and Democrats will go along with anything the president wants.
The same restraint will be exhibited in exploring the offshore tax havens that have protected the Pritzker family's immense wealth. Back in 2008, when she had been rumored for this same Cabinet post, Pritzker was queried about avoiding the sort of taxes most ordinary folks are obligated to pay, and she replied in writing: "I am a beneficiary of some non-U.S. situs trusts which were established about 50 years ago (when I was a child) and are administered by a non-U.S.-based financial institution as trustee. I do not control how those assets are administered." If the Republicans challenge that canard, the Democrats will smugly remind them of Mitt Romney's tax havens, as if that excuses tax avoidance within their own ranks.
Certainly the Republicans will not raise questions about the anti-union practices that helped create the Hyatt fortune in the first place and continue to this day. Nor will the Democrats, who embrace unions only at national convention time.
"There is a huge unresolved set of issues in the Democratic Party between people of wealth and people who work," noted Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, which attempts to organize the miserably paid workers that produced Pritzker's wealth. "Penny is a living example of that issue."
But it's payback time, and even normally progressive Democrats like Pritzker's home state Sen. Dick Durbin are prepared to roll over. Treating the appointment of billionaire Pritzker as a victory for women everywhere, the senator said she'd "broken through the glass ceiling with her extraordinary intelligence and business acumen."
Right, Pritzker will be a fine role model for those women working at the Asian factories that she'll be touring as Commerce secretary extolling the virtues of the American business model.