As he continues to fill out his cabinet, a report emerged late Wednesday that President Obama is "close to choosing" Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker as America's next Secretary of Commerce. There's only one problem. She and her secretive family have been caught up in some pretty dodgy commercial ventures including but not limited to dodging taxes and running a bank that specialized in subprime mortgages.
Scandal potential aside, Penny Pritzker makes good sense as Obama's pick for Commerce Secretary. She's engaged in commerce, first of all — like, a lot of it. Having been born into the family that created the Hyatt hotel chain, Pritzker's been a businesswoman her entire life and not just in the hotel industry. She's also overseen retirement homes, a parking company, a realty group and a credit-rating agency. Penny Pritzker is a billionaire not just because she was born into money, but because she's proved to be very successful at making it on her own. Doubters can consult her contribution to the Obama campaign in 2008, when she didn't just donate money herself but raised record-breaking sums as Obama's national finance chairwoman. She was even in the running for Commerce Secretary during Obama's first administration. Impressive resume, right?
It is impressive, but there's a bit of a dark side. Back in 2008 when she was "widely reported to be a leading contender for commerce secretary," The New York Times laid down some difficult truths about Pritzger. It's true that 53-year-old woman — then just 49 — has managed a number of businesses in her career. Unfortunately, one of them was Superior Bank which, in The Times's words, "focused on bundling subprime mortgages into securities, the practice that later helped set off the current financial crisis." Oops. That bank went under in 2001, but not after the Pritzker family agreed to pay $460 million in damages to depositors. Her involvement in Superior Bank would be trouble enough in a Senate confirmation hearing, but Pritzker's family is also well known for their tax avoidance techniques. Borrowing The Times's wording again, "The Pritzkers were pioneers in using tax loopholes to shelter their holdings from the Internal Revenue Service, and many of their dealings have never been made public."
Needless to say, Pritzker did not become Commerce Secretary in 2008, but this year is different. The nation is a little further from the financial crisis than it was before. The president is undoubtedly a little more sure of himself having already served one term. And Obama still owes Pritzker. After all, she helped get him elected. Bloomberg's sources say that the president has not made a final decision, and neither party would comment on the possibility of his picking Pritzker. Even if she brings a bit of a shady past, at least Pritzker would certainly bring some diversity to Obama's cabinet.