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Penny Pritzker says no thanks to Commerce post

By Carol Eisenberg

November 20, 2008 at 1:40pm

Penny Pritzker, the billionaire heiress who oversaw Barack Obama’s record-breaking fund-raising efforts, has taken herself out of the mix for U.S. Commerce Secretary.

“Penny Pritzker ultimately has decided she does not want to do the Commerce thing,” the Chicago Tribune’s Swamp quotes a senior Obama official.

Pritzker is already part of the Obama Biden economic transition team. But sources said it would have been exceedingly difficult for her to disentangle from her family’s far-flung business empire to fulfill the president-elect’s ethics requirements for members of his administration.

The 49-year-old Harvard- and Stanford-educated lawyer and businesswoman, whose net worth was estimated at $2.8 billion last year, is one of a trio of Pritzkers who run a sprawling family empire that includes the Hyatt hotel chain.

Pritzker first met the Obamas in the late 1990s when her son and daughter played in a summer basketball league at a Chicago YMCA coached by Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother, who introduced them.

Another key link was Obama’s longtime friend Martin Nesbitt, a vice president of the Pritzker Realty group, who approached her about getting involved in Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign, where she also would serve as finance chairman then.

A Pritzker appointment would certainly have not broken the “business as usual” mold that Obama has campaigned against. On the other hand, many commerce secretaries have been major donors of the presidents who appoint them.

Pritzker also would have brought baggage as the former chairwoman of Chicago’s Superior Bank, which failed in 2001 after making large amounts of sub-prime loans. While she stepped down as chairwoman in 1994, she remained on the board of the bank’s holding company.

The Chicago-Sun Times reported in April that it had obtained a letter showing that until Superior’s end, Pritzker made efforts to try to revive the bank with an expanded push into subprime loans. Pritzker’s attorney Kevin Poorman said that the kind of subprime lending that Superior was doing in 2001 was not predatory.

Update: Chicago Sun Times columnist Lynn Sweet posts an email from Pritzker herself saying she is not a candidate for the Commerce post. “I think I can best serve our nation in my current capacity: building businesses, creating jobs and working to strengthen our economy,” Pritzker said.

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