PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office ruled Wednesday that Gov. Dan McKee must release an email alleging misconduct by top officials on a business trip earlier this year that the governor’s office has fought to keep secret for nearly three months.
The 12-page decision finding that McKee’s administration violated the Access to Public Records Act came in response to separate complaints filed by both Target 12 and The Providence Journal after the governor’s office refused to release the email in April.
Target 12 has reported that the email details allegations of unprofessional conduct during a March 10 trip to Philadelphia taken by Jim Thorsen, then director of the R.I. Department of Administration, and David Patten, director of the R.I. Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, as they visited a company seeking to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory.
The attorney general, who acts as an independent arbitrator in public-records disputes, ruled that the public’s interest in the email outweighed the privacy interests of those involved under the state’s public-records law, also known as APRA.
“Disclosure of the email could be very damaging to the reputation of the employees who are the subject of the email,” assistant attorney general Katherine Sadeck acknowledged in the decision. However, she wrote, “There is a public interest in allegations regarding how high-level state officials openly acted in front of third parties while they were in the course of representing the State of Rhode Island.”
But the attorney general’s office declined to fine McKee’s office over the violation after finding it was “not willful, knowing or reckless.”
“The Governor’s Office applied the balancing test in good faith and we confirm that there is a privacy interest in the withheld record, albeit an interest that we find outweighed by the public interest,” Sadeck wrote.
The governor now has five business days to release the email publicly or else the matter could end up in R.I. Superior Court, which would set up an unusual legal battle. While the attorney general typically defends the state’s interests in civil and criminal matters, Neronha in this instance would argue for disclosure in the interests of the two news organizations.
“I view us as the people of Rhode Island’s law firm — I don’t view us as the McKee administration’s law firm,” Neronha told Target 12. “There are 330 lawyers on the state payroll. I’ve only got 100 of them, so I suppose there are some other lawyers out there they can find to handle the matter.”
In a statement, McKee spokesperson Olivia DaRocha said they are reviewing the attorney general’s decision, and she disclosed there’s a separate investigation into the allegations.
“I can confirm for you that the incident involving Mr. Patten was referred by our office to the State Police in mid-April,” DaRocha said. (The office did not immediately respond to a question about whether it’s being investigated as a criminal matter.)
Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha, said his office was “not aware of any RISP investigation.”
“I will note also the governor’s office makes no mention of this in their submittal arguing against disclosure in the decision,” Hodge said in an email.
The contents of the email have been kept under wraps since its existence was first reported by Target 12 in April, and McKee and other state officials have remained tight-lipped about what happened in Philadelphia. But the attorney general’s office, which got to see the email, said the allegations it contains are “specific and detailed.”
“This is not a situation where the allegations being levied are vague or entirely unsubstantiated,” Sadeck wrote.
Target 12 has confirmed Patten and Thorsen traveled on March 10 to a Philadelphia facility developed by the state contractor, Scout Ltd., in order to see a model they hoped to replicate at the long-vacant Cranston Street Armory in Providence. Scout is leading the effort to redevelop the castle-like building in the West Side neighborhood.
According to Target 12 interviews with six people familiar with the situation, Scout officials were so upset by the behavior of Patten during the visit that they subsequently wrote an email alleging he made a series of inappropriate comments throughout the day. The email was then shared with the offices of the governor and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi.
Sadeck — who has seen the email as part of the APRA review — echoed in the decision that the allegations are serious.
“[T]he nature of the alleged misconduct in the case before us is serious, not de minimis or trivial,” Sadeck wrote. “As such, the allegations concern extremely senior government officials who, at the time of the site visit, each respectively held the highest leadership position in important departments of state government.”
Three days after the trip, Patten went out on medical leave. He retained that status until May 30, when he was placed on paid administrative leave. His salary is $174,490 per year.
Thorsen, who had already submitted his resignation before going to Philadelphia, came back from the business trip and immediately scheduled a meeting with the state’s human resources division, according to his calendar.
He stepped down from his position in April to return to a job at the U.S. Treasury Department.
When asked about the email and its contents in April, McKee told reporters, “All I’m going to say is that individual is on administrative leave and it’s a personnel matter.”
“I am not going to talk about it anymore,” he said, insisting at the time he hadn’t read the email.
Meanwhile, the controversy over the trip has cast a cloud over Scout’s plans for the Armory, which would include an indoor soccer complex, offices and a business incubator. McKee’s administration declined to request funding in the state budget for the company’s roughly $57 million redevelopment plan, and no money was included in the final budget bill released last week, to the disappointment of Mayor Brett Smiley among others.
Shekarchi told reporters last week he didn’t think the McKee administration had a clear enough plan for what they wanted to do with the facility to merit funding this year.
Target 12 has filed a separate public-records complaint against the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which manages the General Assembly’s operations, for also withholding the email from public disclosure. That complaint remains under review.
As for the complaint against the governor’s office, Neronha noted that he only gets personally involved in public-records disputes when they are “jump-ball cases,” meaning there isn’t consensus among his lawyers examining the issue.
Asked if the complaint over the Scout email was a jump-ball case, Neronha said, “No it wasn’t.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.