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Top R.I. officials accused of sexist, racist comments during business trip

The e-mail from Scout Ltd. executives states the company does not “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.”

David Patten, director of the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, testifies before a House Finance subcommittee earlier this year.Screen grab

PROVIDENCE — At one point during a business trip, a top state official commented on the appearance of female business executive, asking where her husband was and saying, “If I knew your husband wasn’t going to be here, I would have come last night.”

At another point, the official commented on a pair of sneakers he’d received, saying, “Are these made in China? I hope not, because I really hate China” — and then looking at a female Asian staff member in the room and saying, “No offense, hun.”

And in a text, that official urged company officials to “Have a cold six pack waiting on the table in your conference room,” saying, “You have three hours to convince us to give you $55M.”

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Those were just some of details contained in an e-mail that Governor Daniel J. McKee released on Thursday, one day after Attorney General Peter F. Neronha ordered its release, saying McKee had violated the state Access to Public Records Act by refusing to release it.

The e-mail alleges a series of sexist, racist, and otherwise inappropriate comments made during a March 10 trip by David Patten, director of the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, and James E. Thorsen, then director of the state Department of Administration, to Philadelphia to visit Scout Ltd., a company seeking to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory.

“We are writing to you to outline a series of bizarre, offensive and unprofessional actions from Director David Patten and Director Jim Thorsen on their visit to Philadelphia,” Scout executives wrote in the e-mail. The message was signed by Everett Abitbol, director of hospitality and development at Scout, and managing partner Lindsey Scannapieco, and it was sent to Jeff Britt, who was hired by Scout to lobby for their project at the State House.

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“We are embarrassed, shocked, and quite frankly at an impasse for how to work with people who are so blatantly sexist, racist and unprofessional,” Abitbol wrote. “This reflects incredibly poorly on the State of Rhode Island and their leadership. There were many off-color, bizarre, and concerning remarks, but we are going to focus on the two most egregious racist examples to hopefully shed some light on the situation.”

The e-mail explains that the company received a call on March 8 about a visit by Patten and Thorsen on March 10. But at 12:01 a.m. on the day of their visit, the company received a text from Patten saying, “Please have fresh coffee (with milk and sugar) and the best croissant in Philadelphia ready for me upon arrival. Director Thorsen likes Diet Coke. Have a cold six pack waiting on the table in your conference room. You have three hours to convince us to give you $55M.”

The company arranged for Patten and Thorsen to visit some of its tenants, including the Jefferson Wyss Wellness Center, and Diadora, an Italian heritage brand founded in 1948. Scout owns and operates the Bok building, a 340,000-square foot structure that houses more than 250 businesses, artists, makers, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits.

On the visit to the wellness center, they met with Dr. Marc Altshuler, clinical leader of the center and an associate professor and physician of family and community medicine at Jefferson.

“Patten spoke in an extremely loud tone, and both him and Thorsen asked questions about how they treat homeless people in insensitive ways,” the e-mail states. “Questions like ‘Do you really let homelessness here?’ — in front of patients and staff. Followed by a series of questions about if they administer colonoscopies, pap smears, beds, and other questions.”

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When Altshuler expressed his passion for helping those less fortunate, the e-mail says Patten commented, “When you go to the bars at night, you must have to swat off the women.”

When Altshuler told him he was happily married, Patten asked, “You’ve got some ethnicity in you?” When Altshuler said no, Patten asked, “Then you are Italian?” And when Altshuler told him he was Jewish, Patten said “Mazel Tov” and added that he knew Jewish people in Brooklyn where he grew up.

The next stop on the business trip was Diadora. The e-mail said Diadora’s US chief executive later complained to a Scout executive about Patten. After an employee offered Patten a pair of sneakers, the e-mail says Patten asked “Are these made in China? I hope not, because I really hate China” and then directed his attention to a female Asian staff member in the room, saying, “No offense, hun.”

“The CEO is livid and has asked for their information to file a public complaint if these are government officials,” the e-mail says. “He is also married to a Chinese woman and has two half-Chinese children.”

Besides these two incidents, the e-mail listed “a long stream of events that were frankly unprofessional, bizarre and at times offensive.”

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For example, the e-mail states that “What Director Patten said to our managing partner Lindsey Scannapieco was unacceptable and clearly sexual harassment. While getting coffee just as the day began, Director Patten made comments to Lindsey directly about her appearance and going so far as to say ‘Lindsey, where is your husband? Why is he in Australia? Good thing your married or I would move to Philadelphia’ and ‘if I knew your husband wasn’t going to be here, I would have come last night.’ "

At almost every visit to Scout tenants, Patten insisted on taking something home with him, including vegan cheese, hand-blown glass and a pair of sneakers, the e-mail states.

“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,” it states. “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?” in which Thorsen replied ‘It’s de minimis.’ ”

The Scout executives wrote, “We do not understand if there is a mental health challenge underlying this behavior, drug or alcohol use, or frankly just a complete lack of competence about how to treat and interact with people. Thorsen allowed this behavior to continue to happen, even after we pulled him aside to make note that this needed to stop. We are not sure if this was intended to try to force our hand to walk away from the project — but we are disgusted and shocked by these actions.”

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James E. Thorsen, former director of the state Department of Administration.Screen grab

The executives concluded by saying they will never allow Patten or Thorsen to return.

They said they do not “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,” the e-mail says. “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.”

Olivia DaRocha, press secretary for McKee, released the e-mail, saying, “Our office has reviewed the Attorney General’s decision and we appreciate the acknowledgement that ‘the record indicates that the Governor’s Office applied the balancing test in good faith.’” She declined to comment further, saying, “There is still an ongoing Human Resources investigation and an ongoing State Police investigation into this matter.”

Patten, who makes $174,490 a year, went out on medical leave on March 13, three days after the trip to Philadelphia, and he was placed on paid administrative leave effective May 30. Thorsen, who had already submitted his resignation before going to Philadelphia, stepped down on April 28 to return to the US Treasury Department.

Michael P. Lynch, an attorney representing Patten, issued a statement Thursday, saying, “In reading the e-mail, he is embarrassed – humiliated – not just for himself and the impact on he and his family but for those who placed so much trust in him as DCAMM Director. But he is not going to run or hide from this.”

Lynch said the events that unfolded on the trip to Philadelphia “were the result of a mental health event characterized by health professionals as an acute stress event that built up over time.” In the past three years, Patten lost his sister, his father-in-law, and a few weeks before the Philadelphia trip, his best friend, Lynch said, all while continuing to work.

“He did not take care of himself and sought to deal with the stressors through work — some long hours — and unfortunately, resulted in comments that were in no way part of his persona,” Lynch siad. “In over 30 years of work, Mr. Patten has never had a bad review or report in his employment nor demonstrated any sexist or racist behavior or made any such comments and has always acted in all capacities — as a private citizen, public employee and elected official — in a professional manner. The conduct and statements described are just not in or a part of his fiber.”

Lynch noted that in 2012, when he was a member of the Westerly School Committee, Patten sought out an advisory opinion about whether the state ethics code prevented his employer at the time, Collaborative Partners, from bidding on a contract to provide consulting services to the Westerly School Department. (The Ethics Commission concluded it did not).

“He has always — until suffering this acute event, acted with integrity,” Lynch said. “He hopes that when looking at this situation people look at the whole picture and, as difficult as it may be, not just this e-mail — as there is so much more that went on.” He said “Patten understands it may take time, but as he looks forward to returning to work, it will be a period of time before he earns back the respect he had built up.”

Thorsen could not be reached for comment.

Scout Ltd. issued a statement Thursday, saying, “We want to clarify that our reporting of behavior was intended to ensure accountability for their actions and uphold our commitment to our community at Bok as an inclusive and safe space for all.”

“We sincerely hope that our reporting of our experiences did not contribute to any potential lack of funding or support from the governor or his team,” Scout said. We firmly believe that the neighborhood, city, and citizens of Rhode Island deserve a remarkable project that respects the historical significance of the Cranston Street Armory and brings an impactful project to all of Rhode Island.”

Last week, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said the state budget won’t include any funding for the proposed redevelopment of the Cranston Street Armory.

For decades, the urban castle that is the Cranston Street Armory has largely sat vacant, held by the state, and plans to redevelop the historic site were long-sought-after dreams of nearby residents and local businesses. Earlier this year, the state released the final report detailing the plans for redevelopment from Scout Ltd. with a $56.8 million price tag. It included an indoor soccer complex, state offices, and a small business incubator.

This story has been updated with a statement from David Patten’s lawyer, Michael Lynch.



Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.