On a recent fall morning Liesel Pritzker shows up for a meeting wearing a simple black top and slacks. Her face free of makeup and brown hair down, this sophomore at Columbia University is all ingenue. But history may record her as the heiress who helped tear apart one of America’s most storied and wealthy families.
“This is the last thing I wanted to do,” she says. She could be referring to either her first interview with the press–or the ruckus she has caused among the Pritzkers. The suit “is not how I want to define myself,” says the 19-year-old actress.
The action focused unwanted attention on deep divisions tearing apart this obsessively private family. It has also shed more light on a plan to carve up the $15 billion fortune that took the Pritzker forebears a century to build.
The aftermath of the suits has parted the curtain on the shadowy financial underpinnings of this empire–a vast network of domestic and foreign trusts designed to minimize, if not eliminate, taxes.
What do taxes have to do with the squabbles of a dozen or so cousins over their gargantuan inheritance? Money, of course. But this isn’t a story just about greed. It’s about charges of thievery and revenge by proxy, competing senses of entitlement and justice, and irreparably hurt feelings–all eating away at a family that once hung tightly together.
This is an empire that was never built to withstand a breakup. It was intended to grow and be handed down from one generation to the next, largely protected from the taxman through the shrewdness of family strategists–and generous grandfather clauses that protect assets accumulating in offshore accounts set up years ago. It’s no coincidence that just as the splitup is occurring, the IRS, sometime around the beginning of 2003, issued a notice of tax deficiency to Liesel’s cousin Thomas, who effectively controls the trusts, and to other cousins.
Do the Pritzkers hate paying taxes more than they seem to despise one another? Can they bust up the family fortune without the IRS finally breaking down their doors?
It’s anybody’s guess at this point. In June family members on the other side of Liesel’s suit filed a 137-page motion to dismiss it; the judge in the Cook County chancery court is expected to rule in December. Publicly, the Pritzker defendants present a united front against the two youngsters. Privately, however, some members delight in the discomfort of the ruling trio–Tom, Nicholas and Penny.
These dissidents, say various insiders, are still somewhat angry about the $480 million they believe the threesome unfairly grabbed for itself, in the form of self-awarded participations in deals they put family money into.