Friday, March 11, 2011

My Kingdom For A Bed

Seattle socialite Cynthia Stroum [above] nearly led to diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Luxembourg War to request Afghanistan or Iraq.

A little-noted diplomatic disaster nearly led to a number of U.S. diplomats descending into the middle of a war zone rather than enjoy safe careers in a country the size of Rhode Island. The reason has to do with the age-old practice of rewarding large contributors to presidential campaigns with plum ambassadorships in countries that are irrelevant. The list of diplomatic incidents that can be traced to this practice is literally endless. It's the latest example that I write of today.

The contributor was Cynthia Stroum, a Seattle-business executive who made significant financial contributions - directly and through fund-raisers - for President Obama and other Democrats during the 2008 campaign. Her reward was the position as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg - a country as internationally significant as New Jersey.

Her tenure was less than John Quincy Adams-like, however. It ended when she quit in early-February. A day later, the details of her time in Luxembourg came out, reading reads a How to Empty an Embassy manual. With a little The Devil Loves Prada thrown in.

It turns out that Stroum managed through creating personality conflicts, hurling verbal abuse and making unbelievably funny expenditures of U.S. tax dollars that - for a wealthy woman - are a bit seemly. Her running of the embassy was so bad that embassy staff requested transfers to Iraq or Afghanistan. Think about that for a second.

Lest you think that Stroum earned her personal fortune,it was her father's dough. Sam Stroum was a Seattle philanthropist who made a fortune in the auto-parts business and felt bad enough about it to donate money to get his name on buildings through two charitable foundations. He died in 2001.

The latest move by people in trouble is to send e-mail responses to reporters rather than actually speaking with them. This is actually brilliant, as journalists aren't exactly known for getting quotes 100% accurate - unless they're also stenographers. So, in an e-mail response to the Seattle Times, Cynthia Stroum described the circumstances of her departure from Luxembourg as "unfortunate" and said she had filed a rebuttal to the negative report with the State Department. Her service in Luxembourg, she wrote, gave her new respect for the work done by the diplomatic corps and an admiration for the people of Luxembourg and the ruling family there. I don't doubt that: my guess is she'd never heard of either Luxembourg or the State Department before the appointment.

Stroum also wrote, "The initiatives that I chose to focus on were what I believed to be in the best interest of the relationship between Luxembourg and the United States, and I'm proud of the links connected especially with businesses here in my home state of Washington."

Stroum's appointment had been promoted by Sen. Maria Cantwell [D, Wash.], who said at Stroum's confirmation hearing, "I have known Cynthia for many years, and I know that I can say this with experience: She will be an outstanding representative for our country," Cantwell said. Needless to say, Cantwell's had no comment since Stroum's departure.

Others, however, had much to say. In a report by the Inspector General's Office, investigators found that the Luxembourg embassy "has underperformed for the entirety of the current ambassador's tenure. At present, due to internal problems, it plays no significant role in policy advocacy or reporting, though developments in Luxembourg are certainly of interest to Washington clients and other U.S. missions in the NATO and EU communities." Well, that last part is horse shit, but they have to say that.

The IG's report portrays a corrosive atmosphere at the small embassy, with Stroum running roughshod over staff, threatening to read their e-mails and largely spending her time taking advantage of job-related perks. "The bulk of the mission's internal problems are linked to her leadership deficiencies, the most damaging of which is an abusive management style," the report said. "Those who have questioned or challenged some of the ambassador's actions state that they have paid a heavy price in the form of verbal abuse and been threatened with dismissal," it said.

To give you an idea as to how bad the situation was the Inspector General recommended the State Department dispatch medical personnel to Luxembourg to test the stress levels of embassy employees. It said at least four staffers quit or sought transfers to Iraq and Afghanistan - exchanging a posh diplomatic appointment in a country with plumbing to spend time in a barren war zone.

President Obama nominated Stroum in 2009 to the post in Luxembourg - a nation of 500,000 people, about the size of Rhode Island. Aside from her experience as an investor, 'entertainment producer' and 'philanthropist' active in numerous charities, Stroum's only qualification for the post was her generous contributions to Democratic politicians and causes, particularly Obama. Financial reports say Stroum donated the maximum personal amount to Obama's campaign while after having also donated $2,300 to the failed presidential campaign of former then-Sen. John Edwards [D, N.C.]. More importantly, though, as a fundraiser she was responsible for raising at least $500,000 for Obama, putting her among his top money generators. It didn't hurt that Stroum also had been a generous supporter of local Democrats like Cantwell and her fellow Sen. Patty Murray [D, Wash.].

The Inspector General said it had learned in interviews with embassy staffers that Stroum, shortly after her arrival in Luxembourg, discussed with them "the importance she attaches to the perquisites of" being an ambassador. She was particularly concerned about the state of the ambassador's residence, which was being renovated, it said. Renovation time!

Because of that renovation, Stroum ordered an embassy official to spend time - it turned out to be six weeks - seeking out temporary housing for the ambassador. Over those six weeks, the official - using contacts in Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and France and two officials from the U.S. Embassy in Brussels - screened 200 properties and visited 30-40.

They found only four that met the ambassador's requirements, and she rejected all of them all anyway, before an 'acceptable' residence was found.

Other highlights from the report include the fact that Stroum spent $2,400 to fly with an aide to a Swiss "professional school," whose graduates have gone on to work for Buckingham Palace and similar places, to interview candidates to replace a caretaker and a fired chef. She had the embassy purchase $3,400 in wine and liquor a day before the 2010 budget year ended in an effort to spend the rest of its annual entertainment budget rather than turn it back over to to the government for FYE 2011. This despite the fact that the State Department - like just about every other business - has rules that say embassies are not allowed "to use excess year-end funds" to buy items unless they are used in that year.

Stroum was reimbursed for the purchase of a new bed because she "preferred a queen bed to the king-size bed already provided." So, it wasn't that she needed a bigger bed - she wanted a smaller one. The embassy twice asked the State Department to reimburse the amount but was denied because it was a personal choice. Despite the refusals, the No. 2 official at the embassy signed off on a reimbursement "out of program funds."

Presumably, now that she's back in Seattle, she's in a comfortable bed.

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