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Democratic leaders float probe as controversy over Maine AG swirls

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.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey’s romantic relationship with a subordinate employee continues to generate questions abouthis sudden decision to publicly disclose it and how the state’s top lawyer navigated policies designed to insulate workers from harmful office dynamics. Meanwhile, the Democratic legislators who elected Frey are signaling that they might launch a review seeking answers.

Frey, a Democrat, has apologized for not reporting, until this week, a relationship that began seven months ago. While a public disclosure wasn’t expected, an internal one occurring sooner may have preempted the current controversy. That’s because it’s generally considered best practice to reveal romantic relationships in the workplace so that subordinate employees are placed under different supervision, a move partially designed to guard against favoritism perceptions among other employees, and also to protect the subordinate from feeling pressure to continue a relationship with their boss if they lose interest.

Supervisors working for most state agencies are required to disclose such consensual relationships. However, the AG Office’s workplace harassment policies are silent on the issue, which is why Frey continues to assert that he broke no rules.

On Wednesday, he reiterated that point in a press statement issued by Cara Courchesne, a public relations professional he’s hired to handle the current controversy. She said Chief Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub, who is now supervising the subordinate employee, conducted an internal investigation and found that the relationship “did not breach any laws, rules, or office policy.”

However, the same statement went on to tacitly acknowledge that the AG Office policy may be deficient and “must reflect the high standards the people of Maine rightfully hold for the Office.”

Courchesne added, “As such, Attorney General Frey commits to a full, transparent review of all the Office’s policies. He will continue to cooperate and work with Legislative leadership in a bipartisan, transparent, and productive manner to address their concerns and preserve the integrity of the Office of the Attorney General.”

Frey is effectively hired by the Legislature, which is how the former Democratic legislator ascended to his position in 2019. But Democrats, who just used their majorities to give Frey a second two-year term, initially said little about the controversy.

That has led Republican legislators to call on Democrats to hold Frey accountable.

“We are under no illusions that calling for Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey to resign or face appropriate disciplinary action will result in any consequences,” House and Senate Republicans said in a joint statement. “Therefore we ask those responsible for his election, legislative Democrats: How do you intend to hold him accountable?”

Democrats gave some clues on Thursday, hinting at the prospect of an investigation.

Mary Erin Casale, a spokesperson for Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, said Frey’s office “must hold itself to the same high standards expected of all branches of state government.”

“Appropriate policies, procedures and oversight are mandatory, not optional,” Casale continued. “The Speaker of the House will ensure that the operations of the OAG and the actions of the Attorney General undergo a thorough and transparent review.”

Christine Kirby, a spokesperson for Senate President Troy Jackson, said Jackson was “disappointed” when he learned of the controversy.

“The Attorney General’s actions — his lack of transparency and failure to immediately update the reporting structure — reflect poorly on him and the office he holds,” said Kirby.

She added, “Though the Attorney General’s statement suggests that those steps have now been taken, it’s not clear whether or not an independent or internal review is warranted or has been performed. Our office will continue to take a closer look at this issue — we want to ensure that the proper steps have since been followed and a clear policy is put in place out of respect for the employees, to preserve the office environment and safeguard the integrity of the Office.”

Meanwhile, private details of the relationship — and the people it has affected — continue to spill into public view. Frey’s long-term girlfriend posted on Facebook that she was unaware of the relationship until his press statement and that he repeatedly denied it right up until the statement was released. She accused him of a cover-up. The subordinate employee was also married.

Such details have stirred the interests of some conservative activists on social media, but so far elected Republicans are keeping the focus on Frey’s decision not to disclose the relationship sooner — arguably a smart move given that neither political party can lay claim to the morality mantle when it comes to private affairs.

After all, the Frey controversy comes as national Republicans scramble to defend former President Donald Trump after he was indicted this week for mishandling hush money payments to an adult film star he reportedly had sex with while married to his current wife.

Abortion opponents mobilizing in Maine

There was a palpable feeling of energy, and even optimism, this week when several hundred abortion opponentspacked the Hall of Flags in the State House.

The annual gathering used to take place outside of the State House in January to coincide with the release of the landmark Roe v. Wade in 1973. But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling last year, effectively handing the abortion issue back to the states.

Those who rallied inside the State House on Tuesday — just a few dozen feet from the office of abortion rights supporter Gov. Janet Mills — were obviously pleased with the recent seismic shift at the federal level when it comes to abortion.

That seismic shifthasn’t gone their way in Maine, however. In fact, the conservative court’s ruling has provided abortion rights groups and their elected allies with even more momentum to push to expand access to abortion here and to protect Maine doctors and institutions who might provide those services to women from states where abortion is now severely restricted or illegal.

“While the Supreme Court has overturned Roe, we have much to do here in Maine,” said Barbara Ford, executive director of the Shepherd’s Godparent Home in Bangor, which provides shelter to women who are pregnant or in crisis. “Maine is not a very positive place right now for the post-Roe era. Our governor has a very aggressive agenda when it comes to abortion.”

Any bills that seek to rollback abortion laws — such as much-discussed efforts to end MaineCare coverage for abortion, which Republicans say is taxpayer funding for the procedure — are likely doomed in the Democratic-controlled Legislature and with Mills in office.

But Tuesday’s large rally showed that newly energized abortion opponents are mobilizing to fighta bill supported by Mills that would allow women to obtain an abortion after viability if a doctor says it is medically necessary. (Current law guarantees abortions up to the point of viability at about 24 weeks but only afterward “when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”)

We can expect that bill to be the biggest policy fight over reproductive rights in Maine this year. And that could be a more difficult vote even for some self-proclaimed “pro-choice” Democrats from more rural and moderate districts because of constituent discomfort over the prospect of allowing more later-term procedures.

Abortion opponents are already accusing the bill’s backers of pushing for “abortion on demand” even up to just before birth.

But abortion rights advocates counter that procedures late in a pregnancy are exceedingly rare and are almost always in response to the discovery of a fatal condition or serious disorder in the fetus. In fact, state statistics show that 97% of abortions performed in Maine in 2021 happened in the 15th week of pregnancy or earlier. And none happened at 20 weeks or later.

Packing heat at polling places

Guns aren’t on the ballot in Maine this year. But lawmakers are fighting over whether they should be allowed anywhere near the ballot box.

A bill under consideration in the Legislature,L.D. 1255, would prohibit anyone except law enforcement from carrying a gun, knife or other “dangerous weapons” to a polling place on Election Day or to locations where absentee voting is taking place.

The proposal would extend that prohibition to public property within 250 feet of those locations or ballot drop boxes except if the weapons are secured in a locked motor vehicle.

Supporters said the bill is primarily aimed at preventing voter intimidation and protecting poll workers as well as the public. And they cite the growing number of intimidating acts, such asarmed, masked men “monitoring” ballot drop boxes in Arizona last November, as well as threats being made against election workers nationwide in recent years. There have been three documented threats against election workers in Maine in the past two years.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, pointed out that both the U.S. and Maine constitutions protect individuals’ rights to free speech, to vote and to bear arms. But she noted that in a 2022 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said explicitly that firearms could be restricted at polling places.

“We don’t believe there should be one rule for one polling place and a different rule for a different polling place,” Bellows told members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee this week. “Like the Capitol complex, like every courthouse in the state of Maine, we believe every polling place should be entitled to the protection that the Supreme Court found to be constitutional.”

It was clear from their lines of questioning and comments that Republicans on the VLA Committee were not on board, however, as they suggested that prohibiting even concealed guns could actually make polling places more vulnerable to a mass shooter.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said if the bill passes, each voting place should be required to file a security plan with the state. Otherwise, he said, the Legislature is merely creating additional “soft targets for violence.”

“This bill does not reference voting place security and does not contemplate public safety but it should,” said Trahan, a former legislator and influential voice in Augusta on gun issues. “Passing this law as written tries to create safety while making our voting places more vulnerable to active shooters. You cannot have the debate about this new policy without addressing both.”

It’s unclear how the bill will fare in the full Legislature. Gun bills often face a difficult climb in Augusta, even with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, because of firearms’ place in the heritage and culture of the state.

Looking ahead

The Maine House and Senate will begin holding three-day sessions next week, a sign that legislative activity is intensifying.

Committees are continuing to work on bills and hold public hearings. Here’s a few of note:

  • On Monday the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will hold work sessions on billsthat reinstate religious and philosophical exemptions for student vaccinations. The committee could also vote on those proposals, a move that sets them up for votes in the House and Senate.
  • The State and Local Government Committee will hold a public hearing Wednesday on a bill that would require people on the Public Utility Commission to be popularly elected. Right now PUC members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. 
  • The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold a public hearing on bills changing Maine’s metal mining rules. The legislation could affect future extraction of lithium at amassive deposit site near Newry
  • Theperennial debate over Sunday hunting comes back again next week. The Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee will hear testimony on Monday on three bills that seek to allow some form of hunting on Sundays, either by youths, bow/crossbow hunters or landowners on their own property. 

Maine's Political Pulse waswritten this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, 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.