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Maine lawmakers have begun a review of the attorney general’s office romance. Here’s what we know

Attorney General Aaron Frey attends Gov. Janet Mills' State of the Budget address, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Attorney General Aaron Frey attends Gov. Janet Mills' State of the Budget address, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

When Democratic legislative leaders announced two weeks ago that they had hired a private firm to conduct a “workplace assessment” following the controversy over Attorney General Aaron Frey’s romantic relationship with a subordinate, they left out many details about the manner, scope and purpose of the review.

Democratic leaders have framed the inquiry as holding the state’s top law enforcement official accountable. Unlike many states, the Maine Legislature picks the attorney general. Frey, a former Democratic lawmaker, ascended to the position in 2019 after Democrats who control the legislature chose him. He was reelected by the current legislature, but his admission earlier this month that he waited eight months to disclose a relationship with a person he supervised immediately put pressure on Democratic leaders to investigate, and possibly sanction, one of their own.

But the nature of the work assessment — authorized by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland — has been vague.

When asked this week about legislative leaders’ expectations for the review, a spokesperson for Jackson said Wednesday that it will examine worker protection policies and “whether the existing policies were followed in this situation and make necessary policy changes.”

That statement suggests that the outside review won’t simply be an assessment of workplace culture and policies, but also examine whether Frey followed existing policy despite his wait to disclose the relationship. Such a delay would violate the policies of other state agencies, but not the Office of Attorney General, which operates under a different set of rules. (An internal review conducted by a deputy attorney general found that Frey had not violated any policies or laws.)

The statement also adds some clarity absent from the review contract, a three-page document that Maine Public obtained through a public records request this week.

The contract makes no mention of the extent or purpose of the assessment by HR Studio Group, LLC, a human resources firm in Portland. Instead it presents a rough outline of documents and interviews the firm might request, as well as a billing rate of $300 an hour, plus travel expenses. It does not say which Office of Attorney General employees might be interviewed and there’s no specific reference to Frey or the office relationship he apologized for not revealing sooner so that the employee could be reassigned to a different supervisor.

Deb Whitworth, a former member of the Maine Human Rights Commission that will be conducting the review for HR Studio Group, responded briefly via email to questions designed to clarify the scope of the review.

“A workplace assessment is just that: an assessment of the work environment and culture,” she wrote.

Jackson’s spokesperson indicated that Democratic leaders have given HR Studio Group the freedom to determine the manner and specifics of the review.

That assessment began this week, and according to the contract, is expected to conclude in mid- to late-May.

Poll: Mainers no fan of Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk

A poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center suggests that Mainers have a decidedly dim view of high-profile technology CEOs.

A survey released this week showed that Facebook founder and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a net favorability of -72, while Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a close second in unpopularity at -50. Twitter CEO Elon Musk, who has dominated the news recently with this chaotic and whimsical management of the social media platform, sits at -27, which is slightly worse than former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates (-22). Meanwhile, a low profile seems to be benefitting Apple CEO Tim Cook when compared to his counterparts. A plurality of respondents said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion of him.

The same survey showed that 6 in 10 Mainers believe the social media platform TikTok poses a national security threat, but only a narrow plurality support banning the platform — a cause increasingly supported by members of Congress.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills fared well in the poll. Sixty percent of respondents approve of her job performance, a figure buoyed by Democratic and independent respondents. (Only 17% of Republicans feel the same way.) Meanwhile, President Joe Biden remains unpopular with a majority of Mainers; 53% percent disapprove of his job performance, compared with 47% who approve.

King joins calls for SCOTUS conduct bill

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King is teaming up with Alaska Republican U.S. Lisa Murkowski to sponsor a bill to require the U.S. Supreme Court to develop a code of conduct.

The proposal follows similar legislation in the U.S. House backed by 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat. The legislation stems from recent reports showing that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted gifts and trips from GOP megadonor Harlan Crow and didn’t disclose them. Justice Neil Gorsuch has been ensnared in a separate controversy involving the sale of a vacation property to the head of a major law firm that has had several cases before the court.

King has described the proposal as helping the court help itself as public confidence plummets.

“A healthy democracy requires trust: trust in systems, trust in institutions and trust in leaders,” he said in a written statement. “Americans deserve to have confidence that every part of their government — especially the highest court in the land — is acting in an ethical manner.”

The proposal would allow the court to develop its own code of conduct and appoint someone to review potential conflicts of interest or public complaints.

Such a code doesn’t exist for the Supreme Court, leaving the justices to effectively police themselves.

“It is critical that the public has full faith that their institutions are functioning, including the judicial branch,” Murkowski said in a statement. “The Supreme Court must demonstrate independence and fairness as they rule on the laws of the land — and any cracks in the public’s confidence will have damaging repercussions for the state of our democracy.”

It’s unclear whether other Republicans will support the King and Murkowski proposal. However, GOP votes will be needed to advance the legislation and avoid the filibuster.

Golden, Pingree vote against GOP debt ceiling bill

The Republican-controlled U.S. House passed a bill this week that would increase the debt ceiling and reduce federal spending. But the party-line vote — with just enough GOP members to pass — suggests Congress and the White House are still far from any deal to avoid the U.S. defaulting on its massive national debt.

Both of Maine’s House members voted with their Democratic colleagues against the measure. Democratic leaders have objected to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s attempts to link the debt ceiling with GOP demands for budget cuts and limits on future spending.

Pingree accused McCarthy of “holding our economy hostage just to appease extremists in his caucus.”

“The Speaker needs to be fiscally responsible and put a clean bill on the floor so we can pay America's tab,” she said in a statement. “If extreme MAGA Republicans decide to default on America, seniors on Social Security won’t get their checks; car payments, student loans, credit card bills, and mortgages will all skyrocket; and hard-earned retirement savings will be lost.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District had drawn some national attentionlast week when he floated his own, detailed compromise on the debt ceiling and federal spending.

Golden’s proposal would suspend the debt ceiling to avoid a default, but split the difference between Republicans’ calls for spending cuts with Democrats’ desire to increase spending. He proposed to do this by essentially holding the budgets flat over the next two years after adjusting for inflation. The Democrat also called for clawing back unspent federal COVID-19 funds and reversing Biden’s student debt cancellation plans (both Republican priorities) while increasing taxes on some corporations and the wealthiest Americans (Democratic priorities).

In a lengthy “letter” to his constituents posted on Substacklast week, Golden wrote that the “current debate over raising the debt ceiling is all politics” with no one likely to emerge victorious from a national default.

Golden did not comment publicly on the Republican bill that passed on Wednesday. Instead, he and two other Democratic House members, Reps. Mary Peltola of Alaska and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington, co-signed a letter to Biden and McCarthy urging them “engage in genuine talks offering real proposals that will result in an agreement to lift the debt limit.” All three are members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

The GOP measure is unlikely to go anywhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

What we’re watching

  • Maine’s biggest abortion fight in years will play out at the State House on Monday during a noon public hearing in the Judiciary Committee. The bill from Mills, Talbot Ross and Jackson would allow abortions later into a pregnancy whenever a doctor deems it medically necessary. Currently, abortions are only allowed in Maine after viability (generally around 24 weeks) to protect the life or health of the mother. Abortion rights supporters say such procedures are exceedingly rare and often involve fetuses that are discovered to have a fatal condition. But Republicans accuse supporters of the bill, L.D. 1619, of wanting to allow abortion right up to the point of birth “with only a doctor’s note” as part of a campaign to allow “abortion on demand.”
  • There’s a housing crisis in Maine and apparently a bipartisan group of state legislators are affected. Several are proposing a bill that would create a new authority to evaluate the costs and feasibility of creating a lodging facility for lawmakers. Several cosponsors reside in far-flung districts and rent apartments in the Augusta area. The State and Local Government Committee will hold a public hearing on Tuesday
  • A group of Democrats want limits on school budget referendums. Current law requires school districts to hold budget referendums unless voters suspend the requirement for three years. A new bill would nix that process. In its place, a budget referendum would only be required if a petition is signed by a certain percentage of voters in the district within 30 days of the local school board approving the budget. The proposal comes amid multiple reports of school budgets driving big property tax increases. The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will hold the public hearing Tuesday

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and State House correspondent Kevin Miller, and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.