Those comments are described in a four-page email dated March 12 from Scout Ltd. to Gov. Dan McKee’s Chief of Staff Tony Afonso. McKee’s office refused to make the email public when asked by members of the media earlier in the spring. That changed Wednesday when Attorney General Peter Neronha ruled McKee violated the Access to Public Records Act by keeping the email secret. Neronha granted requests from WPRI and The Providence Journal for the release of the email, which happened Thursday.
“In the face of the particular and specific allegations asserted in the withheld email, we believe the public has an interest in knowing those allegations and being able to critically assess and hold the government accountable for whatever action it does or does not take in response to the allegations,” Neronha’s office said in its ruling.
“To be clear, we are not expressing that the government should or should not take any particular action in response to the allegations, as it is not our role to evaluate the substance of the allegations.”
The complaint filed by Scout Ltd. concerns comments made by then-Department of Administration (DOA) Director James E. Thorsen and David Patten, the head of the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance on March 10 during a trip to Philadelphia.
Remarks include commenting on the appearance of a female business executive, insensitive inquiries into the treatment of Philadelphia’s unhoused population, asking a clinician what his ethnicity was, and Patten saying he hates China, before tossing a casual “Sorry, hun,” to an Asian woman in the room.
“We are embarrassed, shocked and quite frankly at an impasse for how to work with people who are so blatantly sexist, racist and unprofessional,” Everett Abitbol, director of hospitality and development at Scout, wrote in his email to the governor’s office. “This reflects incredibly poorly on the State of Rhode Island and their leadership.”
The matter is under investigation by the Rhode Island State Police, the governor’s office confirmed Thursday.
“Our office has reviewed the Attorney General’s decision and we appreciate the acknowledgment that the record indicates that the Governor’s Office applied the balancing test in good faith,” Olivia DaRocha, spokesperson for McKee’s office, said in an email to Rhode Island Current Thursday night.
“As there is still an ongoing Human Resources investigation and an ongoing State Police investigation into this matter, the office cannot comment further at this time,” DeRocha added.
Here’s what you need to know about the email and those at the center of it:
1. James Thorsen stepped down, but David Patten still has a job.
Thorsen stepped down from his $175,367 a year post at the DOA in April to return to the U.S. Treasury Department. Now several state officials are calling on Patten to resign from his $174,490 a year post at the DOA.
Sen. Ana Quezada, a Providence Democrat who is running for the First Congressional District seat, issued a statement Thursday saying, “The way these officials behaved in Philadelphia is disgusting and once again calls into question Governor McKee’s judgment in selecting the top people in his administration.”
Patten has been on paid administrative leave since the trip on March 13, according to the DOA.
DOA spokesperson Cassius Shuman said Friday an active Human Resources investigation is currently being conducted, adding that the length of an investigation is determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on its content and scope.
“Since this is a personnel matter with ongoing investigations by HR and the State Police, the Department of Administration can have no further comment,” he said.
When asked if he thinks Patten should resign, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said in an email Friday, “I expressed my displeasure to the Administration. Mr. Patten is an employee of the executive branch and does not work for the legislature, so I will have no further comment.”
2. Patten’s lawyer says the incident was caused by a ‘mental health event.’
Michael Lynch, attorney for Patten, said that his client is “embarrassed” and “humiliated” by his behavior during the Philadelphia trip.
During a phone interview Friday afternoon, Lynch said the events that unfolded “were the result of a mental health event characterized by health professionals as an acute stress event that built up over years” including death of his sister three years ago and best friend weeks before the trip.
“He never took any extended time from work,” Lynch said. “Unfortunately this resulted in comments that are no way part of his persona.”
Since the incident, Lynch said Patten has sought help and “is in a much better place.” He added that his client is hopeful to return to the DOA, but “understands that it can create a problem for the governor and State of Rhode Island.”
“He’s mindful of that and is weighing his options,” Lynch said.
3. Vegan cheese can be extortion.
Many of the offenses Abitbol reported in the email he wrote to McKee’s office occurred at Bok, a coworking building in Philadelphia that houses more than 250 businesses, artists, makers, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits. The building is owned and operated by Scout Ltd.
Throughout the tour, Abitbol said Patten repeatedly asked each tenant for something to take home with him, including vegan cheese and hand-blown glass, which company officials said “made all very uncomfortable as he forced his requests on people.”
At each instance of taking something, he turned to Thorsen and said something to the extent of “I don’t have to declare this right?”
“At each instance when doing this, he made all very uncomfortable as he forced his requests on people who have a relationship and trust with us,” Abitol said.
Patten and Thorsen also reportedly asked to have lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant, which only served dinner. Upon being told they could not have lunch, Patten said “Well, you can call in a favor if you want $55 [million] in funding.”
“We arranged for a private lunch which has never happened in the history of the project,” Abitol said.
Sen. Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat, called out this behavior by Patten as extortion.
“No public official should extort items such as alcohol, vegan cheese, hand-blown glass, a pair of sneakers, and a private meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant that had to be opened specially for the occasion,” he said in a statement released Thursday.
4. The email’s release brought the tense relationship between McKee and Neronha to a head.
Neronha and McKee are not exactly the chummiest governor and attorney general. The email’s release follows a series of clashes between two independently elected officeholders locked in a relationship characterized by one-upmanship.
Last year, Nerona declined to represent McKee’s office in a legal dispute over homeless encampments on the State House lawn.
McKee rejected a request from Neronha’s office seeking an additional $2 million in his recommended fiscal year 2024 budget to hire an additional 20 staff members, including four for a new cold case unit. The General Assembly has since put some of those funds back into its version of the budget, enough for Neronha to hire 15 staffers.
An outspoken Twitter user, Neronha tweeted his displeasure with McKee’s lack of funding, even telling WPRI in April that he and the governor “don’t have a relationship.” McKee, meanwhile, told the station that he and Neronha were cordial.
Neronha has portrayed himself as a champion of transparency, in contrast to the governor who wanted to keep the email secret.
In a tweet Friday, Neronha extended an open invitation to the news media to visit his office to talk about the work going on there.
Media: I don’t play golf so we can’t chat on the course. But if you want to visit the office to talk about our ongoing work in healthcare, environmental and consumer protection, public safety, protecting kids from lead poisoning and more, the door is always open.
— Peter Neronha (@PeterNeronha) June 9, 2023
5. The fate of the Cranston Street Armory may be in jeopardy.
The Cranston Street Armory served as a warming shelter for the unhoused from December until its May 15 closure.
Its future has been unclear in the meantime, with Providence Mayor Brett Smiley lamenting the lack of funding in Gov. Dan McKee’s 2024 budget for improvements to the 1907 landmark. Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor has said the building would not become emergency housing due to the burden it placed on the local community.
Representatives from the DOA went to Philadelphia in March to see how Scout Ltd. revitalized the Bok building in the southern part of the city before moving forward with plans to renovate the Cranston Street Armory. But after the memorable visit by Thorsen and Patten, Scout’s director of hospitality and development said the firm was losing interest in pursuing a similar revitalization project in Rhode Island.
“We do want to work with people who support casual racism and sexism and are shocked at how this reflects on the State of Rhode Island and the lack of competence there,” Abitbol wrote to McKee’s office. “We would like to make the Armory into a safe and supportive space for ALL and it is clear that with their leadership this will not be possible.”
Rep. Enrique Sanchez, a Providence Democrat, issued a statement Thursday night apologizing to Scout “for the awful way State of Rhode Island officials allegedly treated them.”
“We need to make abundantly clear that the State of Rhode Island will not blow up a project because the contractor dared, even privately, to report extortion, racism and sexual harassment,” Sanchez stated.
Kevin G. Andrade contributed to this story.
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