Obama Administration Finally Fills U.N. Reform Post

April 19, 2011 - 3:42 AM

Joseph Torsella

Joseph Torsella, President Obama’s nominee for permanent representative for U.N. management and reform, speaks during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Dec. 9, 2010 (Image: U.S. Senate Webcast)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration’s long-stated desire to prioritize reform at the United Nations finally has a full-time face: The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Joseph Torsella as permanent representative for U.N. management and reform, an ambassador-level post.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice welcomed Torsella’s confirmation, calling him an “outstanding advocate for serious, sustained, and comprehensive U.N. reform.”

“Across the U.S. government, we are working tirelessly to ensure that U.S. taxpayer money is spent wisely,” Rice said in a statement. “As ambassador, Joe Torsella will energetically champion a more efficient and effective U.N., which is critical to enhancing the security of all Americans.”

Torsella has no diplomatic or U.N. experience. But in written testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said, “I have spent much of my career bringing reform and accountability to public organizations in challenging contexts.”

Apart from his management and reform role, Torsella also will serve as alternate U.S. representative to the U.N. General Assembly.

The delay in appointing someone to the position has brought criticism over the past year or more from advocates of tighter controls at an institution that relies on U.S. taxpayers for more than one-fifth of its operating budget – apart from billions of dollars more for other activities.

U.S. Mission to U.N.

The new U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York is named for former Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, who was killed in a 1996 plane crash in Croatia. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton pointed out that under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, one of the five ambassador positions at the U.S. mission in New York was earmarked for U.N. management and budget issues.

The long delay in getting a successful nominee into the post, Bolton wrote last September, “tells other U.N. members and the secretariat that good management, sound budgeting, and continuing reform are essentially irrelevant to this administration.”

President Obama first sought to fill the post late in 2009, but his original nominee, former Goldman Sachs executive Jide Zeitlin, withdrew amid media reports of legal difficulties related to business dealings in India.

The White House formally pulled Zeitlin’s nomination in January 2010, and 11 months later, on Nov. 17, named Torsella as the new nominee. (The mission headed by Rice has had an acting representative for management and reform, retired former ambassador to Sierra Leone, Joseph Melrose.)

Torsella’s resume includes the positions of chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, deputy mayor of Philadelphia, and president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

But it was another item from the past that prompted questions during his confirmation hearing late last year: Had he been offered the ambassador’s posting as a reward for pulling out of a 2010 election primary considered critical by the Obama White House? No, he said.

In early 2009, Torsella briefly ran in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat. He abruptly withdrew two weeks after the veteran Republican Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties and immediately won Obama’s endorsement.

After Torsella’s withdrawal, Specter was challenged in the primary by Rep. Joe Sestak, who defeated him. Sestak last summer caused a stir with claims that the White House had tried to persuade him to pull out of the primary contest against Specter by offering him a job. (Sestak eventually lost the Nov. 2 election to Republican Pat Toomey.)

Torsella’s nomination to the ambassadorship stirred some speculation that a similar alleged deal may have taken place in his case, not least of all because he has no United Nations or diplomatic experience.

“[S]ome Republicans will claim a United Nations job is payback for Torsella dropping out of the Senate race,” commented a September 2010 Philadelphia Daily News column on rumors then circulating that he might be up for the position.

‘No one offered me anything’

During Torsella’s Dec. 9 confirmation hearing, he was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who chaired the meeting, about the allegations of a link between his nomination and the decision to pull out of the Senate campaign.

“I would like to give you the opportunity to address those concerns, and whether your getting out of that campaign and this nomination are in any way connected,” Shaheen said.

“The short answer is, there is absolutely no connection between those two events,” Torsella replied.

“When I decided to end what was a very brief Senate campaign – after about three months, when the facts changed dramatically from those that were in place when I got in – I made that decision because it was the best thing, in my judgment it was the right thing for me to do and it was the right thing for our family,” he continued.

“No one asked me to leave that Senate race. No one offered me, or hinted at the offer of anything to do so, nor did I ask anyone for anything to do it,” Torsella added.

“I just did it because it was for me and my family the right thing to do. The only deal I made to get out of that Senate race was with my wife – and it was a good one.”

During the hearing, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) read an excerpt from a letter from former President H.W. Bush, endorsing Torsella’s nomination:

“As a former ambassador to the United Nations I could not be more confident in Joe’s qualifications for this job,” Bush said. “He’s a man of character and principle, and will serve our nation well.”

Torsella told the hearing his three top priorities would be to expand and strengthen oversight function at the U.N.; focus on budget discipline; and promote “systemic reforms that can bring lasting change.”