In this Dec., 5, 2018, file photo, Aaron Frey acknowledges applause after he was elected to be Maine's next attorney general at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Maine’s attorney general has admitted “an error in judgment” in continuing to supervise an employee in his office after he began a romantic relationship with the subordinate this summer.

Aaron Frey says he didn’t violate state law, office policy or legal rules. That is mostly beside the point. For one, the appearance of a conflict or inappropriate situation is sufficiently problematic. Second, Frey essentially acknowledged that he should have taken action earlier to remove himself as his partner’s supervisor, which shows he understood the danger of this unequal power dynamic.

Consensual relationships are not mentioned in the attorney general office’s harassment policy. One harassment policy for state government employees includes a provision that says “supervisors who become personally involved with a subordinate are required to report the relationship to their supervisors so that a change in reporting structure can be considered.” At minimum, Frey should update his office’s policy to meet these standards.

“While our relationship has not violated any legal rules, office policy or law, I have directed Chief Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub to supervise this person moving forward as this personal relationship continues,” Frey said in a statement. “This is to ensure that we have appropriate boundaries between us. I should have done this once we realized we had feelings for one another. It was an error in judgment and for that I am sorry.”

This is an issue of an unequal power dynamic. Frey’s partner reported to him, which gave him significant control over their daily work and career. Add in a romantic relationship and this dynamic is hugely problematic.

Which is why there are rules at many organizations that require supervisors to disclose such relationships and to remove themselves from the supervisory role. Frey didn’t do so for months.

Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, has researched and written about workplace relationships and the power dynamic that they create.

“They create a dual relationship issue that can create problems,” Bohns told the BDN Editorial Board. “If I’m your romantic partner, but also your boss, where is that line when we are at work? When we are at home?”

These relationships can be especially problematic for the lower-power individual, she said. They are more likely to see damage to their career in the form of retaliation if they end the relationship, which can make them feel less free to do so. They may face accusations from others that they got ahead because of their romantic relationship with the boss.

“That dual relationship can also impact other people in the workplace. It blurs the norms of what is appropriate, making the organizational climate uncomfortable,” Bohns said.

That’s why numerous corporations, the U.S. military and the U.S. House of Representatives, prohibit such relationships.

That’s why the attorney general’s office needs to update its policy to meet similar standards, and the standards for the rest of state government.

This situation also highlights significant problems with how the attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer are chosen and held accountable, or not. They are not appointed by the governor. Nor are they elected by the people. Instead, they are elected by the Legislature, which essentially means the majority party picks them. These state constitutional officers are often lawmakers from the majority party — currently Democrats — who are term limited out of office. Frey, who practiced law in Bangor, served three terms in the Maine House. He was elected attorney general in 2019.

Because they are not appointed or directly elected, the attorney general and other constitutional officers aren’t directly responsible to the governor or voters. Rather, Frey should be held accountable by lawmakers, who should require that he change his office policy to ensure that supervisors do not have romantic relationships with people they oversee.

Going forward, lawmakers should give strong consideration to legislation to have these officers elected by Mainers, a change we have long supported.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...