Since 2011, when Pennsylvania’s state treasurer set up his Twitter feed, @JoeTorsella has signed up just over 5,000 followers. The Rhodes-Scholar-turned-Democratic-politician offers a menu heavy with earnest, good-government sentences and the kind of self-congratulations one expects from folks who ran for office in the pre-Trump era.
His alter ego — the official yet semi-anonymous @PATreasurer account — surpassed that total less than two months after it debuted in May. And it bites harder.
Consider Torsella’s evenhanded criticism of private-equity investors, like the companies that bought, then shut down Philadelphia Energy Solutions and Hahnemann University Hospital:
“Private equity can be a boon to a struggling company by pooling capital, taking it to the next level, and selling it," @JoeTorsella wrote on Aug. 16. “But too often, private equity firms instead buy companies, load them with debt, and pay themselves off in secret while decimating a firm and a community.” That monotone won a total of nine Twitter “likes” signaling approval.
And here’s how @PATreasury made the same point, suggesting what should be done with private-equity investors, three days earlier:
“A fish tube, but for throwing private equity swindlers out of Pennsylvania and into the ocean." That won 5,100 “likes.”
@PATreasury is posted by anonymous members of Torsella’s staff, his spokesperson, Mike Connolly, has told reporters. And that deathless image of wealthy private-equity investors being pushed through a Plexiglas salmon-migration tube and into a roaring river was posted four days after Torsella was one of two “no” votes in a Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System decision to invest $300 million with its latest private-equity fund, run by Platinum Equity Partners. That decision was made over the objections of protesters, who pointed out that Platinum invests in a for-profit prison-services firm and other controversial companies.
Torsella is sometimes joined in his dissents by Education Secretary Pedro Rivera or other members of the minority of PSERS board members appointed by Gov. Wolf — also a Democrat.
But Torsella has been the most frequent “no” vote, as PSERS Chief Investment Officer Jim Grossman, the state’s highest-paid employee, has led PSERS trustees into other high-fee investments. Grossman has also resurrected a long-dormant PSERS program to do direct investments, featuring Harrisburg redevelopment schemes, stock-options contracts, and the purchase of fruit and nut farms.
The treasurer is persistent but measured in his official criticisms. An admirer of the late Vanguard Group founder John C. Bogle, who chaired the board of Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center when Torsella ran it before running for treasurer, Torsella has broadly embraced low-fee, Vanguard-style indexed stock investing over the diversified portfolio that has failed to overcome PSERS’ persistent deficits, forcing local school districts and state taxpayers to boost pension payments every year.
Torsella has also objected to PSERS’ refusal to make public its investment contracts and the payments it awards private firms, as has the smaller State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) — again using careful language in place of incendiary thrusts.
@PATreasury, at least in its initial months, has functioned as Torsella’s alter ego, cheerfully skewering the objects of his criticism, while also boosting the treasurer’s public appearances, arguing about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh sports celebrities and linking to stories about consumer finance outrages.
On July 10, @PATreasury sought to make the distinction clear: “State treasurers,” it posted, are “magnanimous, informed, wise. Social media staff,” by contrast, are “feral, brains melted by irony, always posting.”
A supportive reader asked: “Is it true that @JoeTorsella is so strong he can bend a bar of pure Pittsburgh steel with his own hands?”
@PATreasury responded: “Doesn’t have to. As a Rhodes Scholar, he can do it with his mind.”
Through it all, the attacks on private-equity managers — unnamed — persisted. One depicted them as a wealthy cartoon character shoveling bundled money — the people’s money — into a burning stove.
On Aug. 6, the account urged readers to imagine “30-50 private equity managers, rolling around in a pile of cash they took from an unsuspecting public while firing the retail workers who are struggling to make ends meet."
A month earlier, when it still had hundreds, not yet thousands, of followers, @PATreasury identified itself as the product of two unnamed staffers: “Basically, we decided to create the account and get kind of weird with it, but hopefully not too weird. And for all of our followers at this point, we will personally look to see if you have unclaimed property. And we will happily DM you if we find some.”