Penny Pritzker faces tough questions at commerce secretary confirmation hearing

May 23, 2013 (WASHINGTON)

"I am the beneficiary of offshore family trusts that were set up when I was a little girl," said Pritzker.

It was the defense of one of the richest women in America to questions of propriety surrounding offshore trust accounts managed by a Canadian bank that play a large role in her fortune- estimated at $1.85 billion.

"I didn't create them, I don't direct them, I don't control them, but I have complied with all of the disclosure obligations, etc., that have been required of me in this process," Pritzker said.

After a warm introduction from Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, friendly senators led by West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller extolled the virtues of having a commerce secretary with an entrepreneurial track record.

While Pritzker faced lots of talk about fish– the natural resource is a huge issue in a department that has 12 bureaus and 40,000 employees -- the issue of how her family's Hyatt hotel chain deals with organized labor came up. Some 30 members of the Unite Here hotel workers' union showed up to criticize the nomination.

The union has called Hyatt "the worst hotel employer in America" because of its treatment of workers and failure to reach a new labor contract.

Even more contentious were questions from the ranking republican, South Dakota's John Thune, about Superior Bank, a Hinsdale savings and loan that went bankrupt in 2001, leaving depositors of over $100,000 such as Elizabeth Grabill's late father, Jerry, out of luck.

"He had put all this money away for us. When you lose that kind of money, you get bitter," said Grabill.

Pritzker said she gave up chairmanship of the bank seven years before its collapse, but in the days following 9/11, brokered a voluntary agreement with the government that went some of the way to repaying depositors.

At the end of the hearing, Sen. John Thune could be seen congratulating Pritzker and commenting informally to reporters that he did not see too many roadblocks to her nomination.

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