AUGUSTA, Maine — An independent report on Attorney General Aaron Frey’s relationship with an employee he supervised was released Friday afternoon and largely found no fault with how the Democrat’s office handled the situation and its fallout.
That’s despite Frey’s deputy producing no written notes or formal report as part of his own review of the matter.
The report from Deb Whitworth, a human resources expert who served on the Maine Human Rights Commission for more than a decade, also found employees in Frey’s office feel it is a “great place to work, replete with a work environment that is generally very positive.”
Legislative leaders had announced they would seek the independent review of Frey’s handling of the matter after the Democrat issued a statement April 4 saying that he had been in a relationship with an office employee whom he “formerly supervised” since August and calling it an “error in judgment” to not disclose it sooner.
Frey has never been married, but he was in a relationship with a long-term partner with whom he lived until February, that person previously told the Bangor Daily News. The spouse of Frey’s subordinate filed for divorce in March, according to court records.
The employee with whom Frey had a relationship is named in Whitworth’s report, but the BDN has not named the woman, her spouse or the person who has been in a long-term relationship with Frey because they are not held to the same standard as the attorney general.
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Documents from Frey’s office show him moving over roughly 50 minutes in early April to reassign his romantic partner to his deputy, alert colleagues to the relationship and announce it publicly. All of those actions came just hours after the BDN began investigating tips it had received about the relationship over the past week.
Whitworth was asked to review Chief Deputy Attorney General Chris Taub’s internal investigation of Frey’s relationship, which found Frey violated no policies. (Consensual relationships are not mentioned in Frey’s office’s harassment policy, unlike the one governing the Mills administration that lays out a process for handling them.)
Whitworth discovered there was no report from Taub to review.
Whitworth said the lack of a “formal written report” from Taub is “not only understandable, but justified, as there simply was no need for a formal investigation to take place based on the third party complaint.”
“Of course, better notes could have resulted in more substantive documentation,” Whitworth wrote in her 32-page report. “However, the Deputy Chief inquired as to the nature of the complaint, determined that no wrongdoing had occurred, and opted not to write a formal report, much like he had done in the past relative to similar situations.”
Whitworth said Taub shared how the subordinate’s brother-in-law had first reached out to the office on March 28 to make a complaint about how Frey and the employee he supervised were in “a romantic relationship.”
The report adds Taub tried unsuccessfully to contact the brother-in-law to inform him of the outcome of the office’s investigation and did not reach him until April 5, a day after Frey publicly disclosed the relationship.
“According to Taub, the complainant did not like what he was telling him and asserted his disbelief that there was nothing that prohibited the conduct,” the report said. “Taub reported that he told him that there is nothing [in violation], and the OAG would be taking no further action on the complaint.”
Whitworth said Taub told her he wished in hindsight he had written a report because of the scrutiny the attorney general’s office received about the relationship.
Whitworth spoke with Frey and 18 office employees in numerous interviews, and Frey told her his “error in judgment” was not being transparent about the relationship.
“I’m not just anybody. This was going to get some attention,” Frey said. “Even though disclosure is not required, it was owed. I did owe that transparency.”
Frey added he is not yet sure if the Legislature will trust him as a result of what happened.
In a Friday afternoon statement, Frey’s office said Whitworth’s final report “confirms that the workplace culture in the Office of the Attorney General is professional, respectful, and guided by a commitment to Maine people.”
“We appreciate the transparency of this process and the opportunity to review and update our policies,” the office’s statement said. “We look forward to continuing our proud service to the State of Maine.”
Spokespeople for Gov. Janet Mills and Democratic leadership did not respond Friday afternoon to a request for comment on the report.
Republicans reiterated a desire for the Legislature to pass a bill allowing voters to elect the attorney general and three other constitutional officers.
“Republicans want the Maine people to have the ultimate say on constitutional officers,” John Bott, spokesperson for House Republicans, said. “Until then, it’s decided by insiders.”
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said that releasing the report late on a Friday ensures fewer Mainers see it. “Looks like they’re all saying pretty much the same thing to keep the boss happy,” he said. “Hard to believe the AG’s office or this report has any integrity after seeing that.”
Most staff in Frey’s office whom Whitworth interviewed shared mostly positive sentiment on the office environment and culture.
And the respondents, whose names were not included in the report, all mostly said the work environment had not changed since Frey disclosed his relationship with the staffer.
“It’s business as usual,” one employee said.
“They [the media] blow it out of proportion,” another staffer added. “They called it a sex scandal. It’s not and it’s too bad.”
Some staff did express negative reactions to Frey’s disclosure and the fallout, with one employee calling the situation “deeply disappointing” and saying the “office reputation was tarnished.”