Pritzker faces few tough questions at Senate hearing
Chicago businesswoman and current Commerce secretary nominee Penny Pritzker faced few tough questions at her Senate hearing Thursday. Pritzker, a long-time friend of and fundraiser for President Barack Obama, was nominated to the post earlier this month.
Pritzker seemed prepared for the two-hour hearing, answering a questions on topics including cyber security, job creation, manufacturing, travel and the fishing industry.
"The calls you’ll get will be about fish," Alaska Senator Mark Begich (D) told Pritzker. "You will think they’re about trade and agreements and tourism - it’s gonna be about fish."
Pritzker was expected to face tough questioning on a few issues. Her family owned 50 percent of the Superior Bank of Chicago, which failed after losing millions of dollars on risky mortgage loans to borrowers with bad credit. Republican Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the ranking member on the committee, was the only senator to inquire about Pritzker’s role in the bank’s collapse.
"Unfortunately, when problems arose, my uncle had recently passed away," Pritzker responded, saying she was never an officer of the bank or involved in management. "I stepped in on behalf of the 50 percent ownership of my family to try and salvage the situation."
Pritzker said after the bank failed, she went to the FDIC herself, and her family voluntarily agreed to pay $450 million.
When Thune asked Pritzker what she’d say to the depositors affected by the bank’s failure, she responded that she regretted the outcome of the bank.
"I feel very badly about that," she added.
Pritzker was also questioned about her family’s offshore trusts, an issue that was expected to be a point of conflict at the hearing.
"I am the beneficiary of off-shore family trusts that were set up when I was a little girl," Pritzker said. "I didn’t create them. I don’t direct them. I don’t control them. I have asked the trustee to remove themselves and appoint a US trustee."
Rocky relations between labor unions and the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, where Pritzker is a board member, barely entered the questioning. Union members of Unite Here in Chicago have protested Pritzker’s nomination over low wages.
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) mentioned the back and forth between the union and hotel management in her questioning, but didn’t directly ask Pritzker about her role.
Pritzker was introduced at the hearing by both Illinois U.S. Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin. Kirk was reportedly on the fence at first about Pritzker’s nomination, but came out with his endorsement earlier this week.
"I see her as a voice for business that the president will have to heed," Kirk told the committee Thursday.
Pritzker’s nomination still has to face the full Senate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ’s Morning Producer/Reporter. Follow her @laurenchooljian.