Before she was tapped by Gov. Jay Inslee to head Washington’s Employment Security Department, Suzi LeVine spent years hobnobbing with dignitaries as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, stationed in an elegant Bern villa.
She’d been named to the diplomatic post after raising more than $2.3 million in support of President Barack Obama’s campaigns, and was sworn in by then-Vice President Joe Biden while holding a Kindle e-book displaying the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
The accomplished Ivy League-educated former Microsoft and Expedia executive has long operated as a potent, behind-the-scenes force in Democratic politics, and over the past several months hosted a parade of 2020 presidential candidates in private, salon-style fundraisers at her Seattle home in her role as a deputy finance chair for the Democratic National Committee.
Now LeVine’s management of what in normal times is a relatively obscure state agency has been thrust into the public spotlight, with a massive fraud scheme pilfering hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits — and efforts to stanch the losses causing maddening delays in payments to thousands of workers.
Some Republicans, as well as workers hit by the ongoing problems, question why LeVine still has her job.
“It’s been a complete failure in every aspect,” said Glynis Harps, a payroll accountant who lives in Renton.
She, like many workers, says she has struggled to get answers from LeVine’s ESD on why her unemployment checks were stopped. She called LeVine’s department “careless and untrustworthy,” and said she has “no idea” how she will pay her June rent. “I am very upset with Suzi LeVine,” Harps said.
State Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said, “Obviously, she has not been successful.
“Sometimes people do the honorable thing and resign. And that might be the best,” he said.
Delays in distributing benefits caused Florida’s unemployment director to be stripped of pandemic-response duties in April, and in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown fired her department director on Sunday.
Inslee is not budging. Asked at a news conference last week whether he still stood behind LeVine, the governor responded by pointing blame at the criminals who carried out the fraud.
“What I stand against is the moral outrage of this international conspiracy that turned the virus of COVID into the virus of crime,” Inslee said. A spokesman later clarified to reporters that the governor remains supportive of his employment agency chief.
LeVine says she has great sympathy with the struggles facing people whose legitimate claims have been delayed.
“For those individuals who are in the middle of this crisis and who are feeling deep pain, I would say, for one, I am so sorry that I have not been able to alleviate your pain and get you the benefits that you need in the time frame that you need them,” she said in an interview via Zoom last week.
“I am doing the very best job that anybody could do in these circumstances,” she said, pointing to the record-shattering rush of claims. But, she acknowledged, “it doesn’t put money in their pockets to explain it.”
Long before leading the state agency, which has been working overtime to recoup funds reportedly stolen by scammers including a Nigerian crime ring called “Scattered Canary,” LeVine personally came face to face with another stunning fraud.
Court records show she and her husband, Eric LeVine, were ensnared in the $65 billion Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Bernie Madoff, the New York investment adviser serving a 150-year prison sentence for defrauding thousands of investors in the largest scheme of its type in U.S. history.
LeVine declined to specify how much she and her husband lost when the scheme collapsed in 2008. “I am not going to discuss amounts,” she said. A 2010 filing in a New York bankruptcy court indicated the couple had invested at least $915,000.
Suzi LeVine said they went through “a challenging time” and have since recovered “through hard work and deep dedication.”
But she stressed that what she and her husband went through “really doesn’t compare” to Washingtonians now struggling to obtain unemployment benefits, “who can’t afford their insulin, who are having challenges putting food on the table.”
“Repair the world”
LeVine, 50, grew up near Atlantic City, New Jersey, and frequently describes her career arc as “nonlinear.” After graduating from Brown University, she was hired by Microsoft in 1993, where she helped launch the final versions of MS-DOS and Windows 95, and later became vice president of marketing and sales for Expedia’s luxury travel division.
She took two breaks to be a stay-at-home mom for two children she had with her husband, a former Microsoft product manager who founded and runs a company called CellarTracker, which helps people to track their wine cellar inventories and compare tasting notes.
During those stints, Suzi LeVine created a Jewish nonprofit, Kavana Cooperative, and an advisory board for the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (ILABS) at the University of Washington.
“My north star is impact,” LeVine said. She said she abides by a Jewish concept called “tikkun olam” meaning “repair the world.”
Money opens doors in politics, and LeVine ascended in Democratic circles as a top national fundraising “bundler” for Obama’s successful presidential campaigns. According to The New York Times, she was credited with raising more than $2.3 million.
The LeVines’ personal wealth ranges between $3 million and $5.3 million, not including their $3.2 million-dollar Seattle home, according to federal financial disclosure records at the time of her nomination for the ambassador post. Their annual investment income alone totaled between $59,000 and $187,000.
Handing ambassadorships to political patrons is a controversial but time-honored tradition for presidents of both political parties. Obama nominated LeVine as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein in January 2014. Washington’s U.S. senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, offered support at her confirmation hearing, and she was swiftly confirmed. Together, Cantwell and Murray have accepted $43,725 in campaign donations from the LeVines over the years, according to Federal Election Commission records.
In the interview last week, LeVine disputed the notion she was given the position solely due to her fundraising. “I think that I was chosen because of my abilities,” she said. But she conceded she “may have gotten on the radar” because of her political work.
Switzerland is not typically a diplomatic headache for the U.S., but the job came with challenges. LeVine was the upbeat face of the Obama administration during a tax crackdown on U.S. citizens living abroad, which caused some foreign banks to temporarily stop accepting American customers and triggered a backlash by ex-pats.
But overwhelmingly, the news involving LeVine’s tour in Bern was benign: hosting an investment summit, donating her e-reader to a museum and promoting Swiss-style apprenticeships and vocational training in the U.S.
LeVine’s Twitter posts conveyed good times in picturesque settings, including a July 2016 Bruce Springsteen concert in Zurich. That year, LeVine’s husband accepted “three complimentary wine tastings of prestige wines” valued at more than $3,000 during an event in Luxembourg connoisseurs refer to as “the Davos of wine.”
She and her family lived at the lavish Blumenrain estate. The ambassador’s residence at Bern, purchased by the U.S. in 1947, is a stately mansion that overlooks the Alps and features a winding grand staircase, richly appointed reception halls and meeting rooms, a private cinema, broad stone terraces and rolling gardens.
“A natural fit”
Leaving the embassy in January 2017 following the election of President Donald Trump, the LeVines returned to the U.S. and began evangelizing the Swiss-style apprenticeship system as a solution to help U.S. students prepare for good-paying jobs. That November, they helped organize a 45-person delegation to Switzerland, led by Inslee, who has long advocated such jobs training.
“She was a total catalyst — she and Eric both,” said Maud Daudon, a former Seattle deputy mayor and former Chamber of Commerce director who now heads the state’s Career Connect initiative.
LeVine landed the ESD commissioner job after it was abruptly vacated in 2018. Her predecessor, Dale Peinecke, resigned after a report found he’d made women at the agency uncomfortable by putting his arms around them and eyeing them inappropriately. Inslee called that behavior “not acceptable in state government.”
LeVine said she hadn’t been looking to lead a state government agency when Inslee reached out to her. Four other people were interviewed, but LeVine’s experience with technology and focus on workforce development made her “a natural fit” to lead the employment department, said Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee. LeVine’s state salary is $177,133.
Over the past 20 years, the LeVines have donated substantially to candidates in Washington and beyond, as well as progressive PACs and causes. They gave $17,200 to Inslee’s gubernatorial campaigns, including $4,000 each to Inslee’s current bid for a third term, according to Seattle Times analysis of campaign finance records.
While leading the department, LeVine has continued raising money for the DNC and says she hosted a dozen presidential candidates at her home during the Democratic primaries. In December, she announced she and her husband were throwing their “full support” behind Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, who dropped out a couple months later.
Drawing on her background in tech, LeVine has adopted an outlook for organizational management built on learning from mistakes. One of her favorite quips is “fail fast, fail cheaply.”
She could not have predicted the multiple catastrophes she is facing now. When Inslee announced her hiring in May 2018, Washington’s unemployment sat at about 4%. It has now shot above 15%, the highest level since the state began keeping comparable records in the 1970s.
That was followed by news that the state had become the top victim of an organized unemployment fraud scheme in the country, with “hundreds of millions” taken before it realized what was going on — missing potential red flags, according to some security experts. LeVine announced last week the state has recovered $300 million in stolen funds.
Despite the chaos and criticism, LeVine retains support from key Democratic lawmakers. “She is on the hot seat. I think she is doing a damn fine job,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who chairs the Senate’s Labor and Commerce Committee, which oversees LeVine’s department.
LeVine’s department has paid out nearly $4.7 billion in benefits since the start of the coronavirus crisis, under the biggest “deluge that I have ever seen any agency have to deal with,” said Keiser. “That the computer system did not crash entirely is a miracle, to be honest.”
For now, LeVine is focused on getting claims paid to thousands of people still waiting for money, with her department hiring 750 new staff and contractors to clear the backlog. She said she’s also working to determine exactly how money much was taken by fraudsters. “Trust me, I want to know,” she said. “I ask every single day.”
Staff reporters Joseph O’Sullivan and Paul Roberts contributed to this report.