A Top Obama Fund-Raiser
Had Ties to Failed Bank
By JOHN R. EMSHWILLER
July 21, 2008; Page A10
For the Pritzker family of Chicago, the 2001 collapse of subprime-mortgage lender Superior Bank was an embarrassing failure in a corner of their giant business empire.
Billionaire Penny Pritzker helped run Hinsdale, Ill.-based Superior, overseeing her family's 50% ownership stake. She now serves as Barack Obama's national campaign-finance chairwoman, which means her banking past could prove to be an embarrassment to her -- and perhaps to the campaign.
Superior was seized in 2001 and later closed by federal regulators. Government investigators and consumer advocates have contended that Superior engaged in unsound financial activities and predatory lending practices. Ms. Pritzker, a longtime friend and supporter of Sen. Obama, served for a time as Superior's chairman, and later sat on the board of its holding company.
Sen. Obama has long criticized predatory subprime mortgage lenders and urged strong actions against them.
In a prepared statement, the Obama campaign noted that Ms. Pritzker was never accused of wrongdoing by regulators in connection with Superior, and that her family agreed to pay $460 million to help defray the costs of Superior's collapse.
In a written response to questions, Ms. Pritzker said the reasons for Superior's fall "were complex. They include changes in accounting practices, auditing failures, reversals in regulatory positions and general economic conditions." During her tenure at the thrift, she said, she believed it followed "ethical business practices" and complied with "fair lending laws." For years, she said, Superior's financial statements were found to be acceptable by regulators.
The Obama campaign recently faced a controversy related to mortgage lending. A member of Sen. Obama's vice-presidential selection committee resigned after a Wall Street Journal story said he received favorable treatment on personal loans from Countrywide Financial Corp., a major subprime lender.
Ms. Pritzker's connection to Superior dates to the late 1980s, when the late Jay Pritzker, her uncle and then the family patriarch, moved to buy from federal regulators a troubled Illinois savings and loan. Ms. Pritzker, who has law and business degrees from Stanford, was to be the venture's chairman, said Mr. Pritzker's partner on the deal, New York real-estate developer Alvin Dworman, in a December 2006 deposition. "Jay bought the bank for her," he said in the deposition, taken in connection with litigation in Illinois state court related to the collapse. Mr. Dworman declined a recent interview request. Ms. Pritzker, in her statement, said she never heard her uncle mention her as a reason for the purchase.
Ms. Pritzker served as Superior chairman until 1994. During that period, Superior "embarked on a business strategy of significant growth into subprime home mortgages," which were then packaged into securities and sold to investors, according to a 2002 report by the Treasury Department's Inspector General.
"Superior was at the forefront of the securitizing of subprime mortgages," says Timothy Anderson, a retired bank consultant who has studied Superior and other failed thrifts.
Ms. Pritzker said her "main role" as chairman was to help clean up past financial problems. "I did not set strategy or policies" on lending or securitization, she said. In 1994, she moved to the board of Superior's holding company.
Through the 1990s, Superior reported rising profits and paid $200 million in dividends to its owners, according to a 2002 report by the inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. But the profits came through "flawed" accounting and masked operating losses, the FDIC report said. The dividend payments were made "without regard to the deteriorating financial and operating condition."
Ms. Pritzker said that she didn't have a personal financial interest in her family's investment, and only received "nominal" directors' fees.
In 2001, under regulatory pressure, the Pritzkers agreed to a $351 million recapitalization plan, which would help "once again restore Superior's leadership position in Subprime lending," Ms. Pritzker wrote in a May 31, 2001, letter to employees.
The Pritzker name lent credibility. In June 2001, Fran Sweet deposited about $480,000 of retirement funds with Superior. The 64-year-old former telephone-industry employee recalls that when she asked if Superior was sound, an official told her, "Don't worry. The Pritzkers own it."
By July 2001, the recapitalization plan had unraveled and regulators took over Superior. It was the biggest thrift collapse in nearly a decade.
Later that year, the Pritzkers reached a settlement with regulators. Without admitting wrongdoing, they agreed to pay $100 million immediately, and another $360 million over 15 years. "I am proud of how I and my extended family dealt with" Superior's closure, Ms. Pritzker said.
Superior's failure could still cost the federal deposit insurance fund tens of millions of dollars or more. And hundreds of people whose deposits exceeded federal insurance limits, such as Ms. Sweet, are still out millions of dollars, which will be reduced some by future Pritzker settlement payments.