President Obama introduces Penny Pritzker as his nominee for Secretary of Commerce. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)
For those who’ve been waiting for Barack Obama, unfettered from the constraints of re-election, to emerge from his chrysalis and take wing as the true liberal they have always known he was, well, here we are: a proposal to cut Social Security benefits via a cost-of-living adjustments (candidate Obama in 2008 said John McCain suggests “the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Let me be clear: I will not do either.”) And now this.
In December of 2008, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Commerce, Chicago-based business tycoon Penny Pritzker, withdrew her name from consideration in the face of a triple-barreled onslaught. First, there was her position on the board of Superior Bank, which her family bought with the help of $645 million in tax credits for the federal government. In 2001, Superior collapsed after pioneering the bottom-feeding trade in subprime mortgages. In In These Times, David Moberg called it a “mini-Enron scandal”; 1,406 uninsured depositors lost their savings. Here was what one of the victims had to say: “The Pritzkers are crooks. They don’t care anything about people who spent their whole lives trying to save.” And here is how Penny responded: “We had seven years of clean audits and then the auditors said, ‘Well, maybe we’ll change the way we calculate.’ ” Exquisite humanity, that. The family coughed up $435 million in settlement money in exchange for not having to admit any wrongdoing. But why, Penny was asked, would they pay half a billion dollars to clean up a mess she said was none of their fault? Because, she answered, “My family is not going to litigate with the federal government at a time like this”—a reference to the September 11 attacks; classy.
Here was the second concern which kept her from the Commerce Department in 2008: “Whether she could disentangle herself,” as The Washington Post put it, from her family’s “vast financial holdings”—many of which they would prefer not to see scrutinized in public. How vast? Well, way back in 1973, The New York Times reported of “The Very Private Pritzkers,” “The family law firm, Pritzker & Prizker, hasn’t accepted an outside client for thirty years because of the potential conflict of interest with the Pritzker enterprises, which are too numerous for any one member of the family to recall at any given moment.” In 1982, when the list became public for the very first time—more on why later—the holdings included at least 216 separate corporate entities, from mining to motels. One current holding is TransUnion—Penny is chairman of the board—which is one of three companies controlling the creepy trade in credit reports. “After widespread consumer complaints about shoddy service in the credit checking industry,” Bloomberg reported back in 2008, “the US Congress passed legislation in 2003 that allowed people to obtain free copies of credit reports so they could check for mistakes and block information obtained from identity theft. That same year, a jury awarded Judy Thomas of Klamath Falls, Oregon, $5.3 million after she claimed TransUnion took six years to correct a mistake in her credit report.” Penny’s reaction? Public-spirited as ever: “The company has always encouraged consumers to monitor their reports, Pritzker says.”