Obama’s billionaire finance chair Penny Pritzker’s failed bank lost money for 1,400 customers.

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BY ABDON M. PALLASCH Political Reporter/apallasch@suntimes.com

White House hopeful Barack Obama talks a lot on the campaign trail about how failing banks have used subprime loans to victimize customers.

“Part of the reason we got a current mortgage crisis has to do with the fact that people got suckered in to loans that they could not pay,” he told a crowd in Reading, Pa., last week. “There were a lot of predatory loans that were given out, a lot of teaser rates. Banks and financial institutions making these loans were making money hand over fist.”

At the helm of Superior Bank was Obama’s national finance chairwoman, Penny Pritzker, an heiress to the Pritzker fortune.

One of the banks that went under after making a lot of subprime loans — leaving 1,400 of its customers without part of their savings — was Chicago’s Superior Bank.

At the helm of Superior Bank at least some of the time was Obama’s national finance chairwoman, Penny Pritzker, an heiress to the Pritzker fortune.

Obama’s campaign notes that Pritzker stepped down as chairwoman of the bank’s board in 1994, seven years before it failed. She then went on the board of the bank’s holding company.

But a letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times shows that until the end, Pritzker appeared to be taking a leadership role in trying to revive the bank with an expanded push into subprime loans.

Pritzker wrote in May 2001 that her family was recapitalizing the bank, and she pledged to “once again restore Superior’s leadership position in subprime lending.” The bank shut down in July 2001.

Pritzker’s attorney Kevin Poorman and Obama’s campaign spokesman emphasized that not all “subprime lending” is the “predatory” kind that Obama and White House rival Hillary Clinton rail against. The kind of subprime lending Superior was doing in 2001 was not predatory, Poorman said.

But at least some of the 1,400 victims who are still owed money seven years after the bank failed say Pritzker is the wrong person for Obama to put in charge of the campaign’s finances when part of his campaign is about reforming the banking industry.

“They still owe me $113,000,” said Fran Sweet, 63, of Downers Grove, who deposited her $480,000 retirement account at Superior a month before it collapsed. “To the Pritzkers, this is nothing. They probably think, ‘Why pay her back?’ That’s nothing. But we’re all upset that someone who made these decisions could be in that position.”

Judging from the record-breaking job Pritzker has done raising money for Obama’s campaign, her fund-raising skills do not appear to be in question, but Sweet said it sends the wrong message.

All three major candidates for president have high advisers embarrassed by banking scandals. Republican candidate John McCain himself got caught up in the Charles Keating savings and loan scandal in the ’80s. Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Maggie Williams was paid about $200,000 to sit on the board of Delta Financial, which did subprime lending of the type Clinton and Obama have complained about on the stump. Pritzker’s brother J.B. Pritzker, part of the trust that owned Superior, though he had no management role, is a national co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign.

The Pritzker family bought the former Lyons Savings and Loan with partner Alan Dworman in 1988. Lyons had failed, and federal regulators asked the Pritzkers to take it over. Crain’s Chicago Business reported that the FDIC gave the Pritzkers “cash, tax incentives and promissory notes” worth $645 million to take Lyons.

Critics, including private bank watchdogs Bert Ely of Virginia and Tim Anderson of Chicago, say it was a “sweetheart deal” for the Pritzkers in which they pledged far more money than they put up. The thrift was renamed Superior.

For just $15 million, the Pritzkers could pay back the 1,400 customers still owed money, Ely and Anderson said.

The Pritzkers put up $460 million, which federal regulators said absolved them of any further liability in the collapse.

That’s less than the $645 million the Pritzkers got to take the thrift, Ely and Anderson note.

Penny Pritzker posted a statement on Obama’s Web site saying she regrets Superior’s failure but noted it achieved high ratings from regulators when she was chairwoman from 1991-94.

“Superior’s failure was complex,” she wrote. “In short, the bank failed in 2001 because regulators concluded that the valuation of certain assets in Superior’s financial statements, which had been audited by Ernst & Young for many years and previously approved by regulators, was overstated and as a result the bank was not capitalized sufficiently.

“My family voluntarily agreed to pay the FDIC $460 M[illion] to help defray costs incurred by the government and other losses in connection with the bank’s closure. … I am proud of how my family responded to this situation.”

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