Originally published Friday, February 4, 2011 at 9:39 PM

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Seattle Democratic donor quits envoy job amid criticism

As a supporter of presidential candidate Barack Obama, Cynthia Stroum was a superstar whose financial backing of the campaign landed her a plum diplomatic posting in Europe. As America's ambassador to Luxembourg, the wealthy Seattle businesswoman was a disaster, according to a State Department report.

WASHINGTON — As a supporter of presidential candidate Barack Obama, Cynthia Stroum was a superstar whose financial backing of the campaign landed her a plum diplomatic post.

As America's ambassador to Luxembourg, a State Department report says, the wealthy Seattle businesswoman was a disaster.

According to the report released Thursday, less than a week after she quit, Stroum's management of the U.S. Embassy in the tiny country was fraught with personality conflicts, verbal abuse and questionable expenditures.

The situation was so bad, the report said, some embassy staff requested transfers to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Stroum is the daughter of the late Sam Stroum, an influential Seattle philanthropist who made a fortune in the auto-parts business and left his mark on many Seattle institutions. Cynthia Stroum, 60, is an investor and philanthropist who created two charitable foundations.

Before her year as ambassador, she had no diplomatic experience but had raised substantial money for Obama and other Democrats.

In an e-mail Friday, 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.

She said "there is more to the story" and that she wanted to tell her side of events at a later time.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., vouched for Stroum at her 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.

Cantwell's office had no comment Friday.


Political rewards

Stroum's case illustrates the pitfalls presidents can face when they appoint noncareer diplomats to ambassadorships as a reward for political support.

The Luxembourg embassy "has underperformed for the entirety of the current ambassador's tenure," said the report. "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."

In her e-mail, Stroum 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."

The State Department report portrayed a corrosive atmosphere at the small embassy, with Stroum running roughshod over staff, threatening to read their e-mails and largely concerned about 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.

The situation was so bad, 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, unusual for diplomats assigned to a modern, Western European capital.

Raised $500,000

Stroum resigned effective Jan. 31, just before the report was made public. In a farewell message published in the Luxembourg press, Stroum said she was leaving the job because she wanted to return to private life.

Obama nominated her in 2009 to the post in the 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 major qualification for the post appeared to be her generous contributions to Democratic politicians and causes, particularly Obama.

Financial reports say Stroum donated the maximum personal amount to Obama's campaign. She also donated $2,300 to the failed presidential campaign of former Sen. John Edwards.

As a fundraiser, records show she was responsible for raising at least $500,000 for Obama, putting her among the top money generators.

Stroum also reportedly got Obama hooked on salted caramels from Seattle-based Fran's Chocolates.

Stroum also has been a generous supporter of local Democrats. She donated at least $13,800 to the campaigns of Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray since 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Father's philanthropy

Stroum's family grew rich thanks to her father's investments in the Schuck's Auto Supply chain and other companies. Sam Stroum, who died in 2001, was a major philanthropist who financed many of Seattle's biggest arts and educational institutions.

He was credited with saving the Seattle Symphony from bankruptcy and championing construction of Benaroya Hall. He served as president of the University of Washington Board of Regents.

Cynthia Stroum has been an investor in local companies, including Starbucks. She established two foundations focusing on cancer research and served on the board of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

She previously worked in the television and film industry. She was one of the producers for the revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway, which received a Tony nomination in 2004.

The report

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.

Because of the renovation, Stroum sought temporary housing. An embassy official spent six weeks searching for an appropriate property and, using contacts in Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and France along with 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 before an acceptable residence was found, according to the report.

Apart from those difficulties and management problems, the report identified several of what it said were improprieties while Stroum was in charge in Luxembourg. Among them:

• She 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.

• The embassy purchased $3,400 in wine and liquor a day before the 2010 budget year ended in an effort to spend as much of its annual entertainment funds as possible. The booze did not arrive until the next fiscal year, and State Department rules 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." The embassy twice asked Washington, D.C., to reimburse the amount but was denied because it was a personal choice. Despite the refusals, the No. 2 at the embassy signed off on a reimbursement "out of program funds." The report said the money needs to be repaid.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this story.