PROVIDENCE — On Monday, nearly a week after he was ordered to publicly release an e-mail detailing allegations of “sexist, racist” behavior by two of his top officials, a Globe reporter asked Governor Dan McKee what he would say to those concerned about the quality of people working in his administration.
The governor paused.
“We have good people working in our administration,” he replied brusquely, and walked away.
Rhode Island @GovDanMcKee responds to Globe reporter @bamaral44's question:— Boston Globe Rhode Island (@Globe_RI) June 14, 2023
"What would you say to people who are concerned about the quality of the people working in your administration?"
🔗 Read the full story: https://t.co/4bb0OOfzym pic.twitter.com/2aWBbJm2Y8
Now, the major project — a revamp of the Cranston Street Armory — for which those two officials had gone to Philadelphia to meet its potential developer, seems to be in limbo. And critics are decrying McKee’s “totally inadequate and offensive” response to allegations revealed in an email from the project’s proposed developer.
“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,” executives from Scout Ltd., a Philadelphia-based urban development and design firm, wrote in the e-mail released by McKee on June 8. McKee made the e-mail public the day after Attorney General Peter F. Neronha ordered him to do so, saying McKee had violated the state Access to Public Records Act by refusing to release it.
“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.”
The e-mail, which was dated March 12, was signed by Everett Abitbol, director of hospitality and development at Scout, and managing partner Lindsey Scannapieco. It was sent to Jeff Britt, who was hired by Scout to lobby for their project in Rhode Island.
During the March 10 trip to Philadelphia, Patten, director of the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, commented on the appearance of a 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, he 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 looked at a female Asian staff member in the room and said, “No offense, hun.”
And in a text, he ordered company officials to have “the best croissant in Philadelphia ready for me upon arrival” along with “a cold six pack waiting on the table in your conference room.”
“You have three hours to convince us to give you $55M,” he added.
Thorsen, who was director of the state Department of Administration at the time of the trip, left his state role and returned to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Patten, who makes $174,490 a year, remains on paid administrative leave – despite calls for him to resign. McKee did not immediately respond to the Globe’s questions on Tuesday about when Patten would return from paid administrative leave, or whether he would accept Patten’s resignation.
Michael P. Lynch, an attorney representing Patten, told the Globe that Patten is embarrassed and humiliated. 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.”
“But he is not going to run or hide from this,” said Lynch.
An attorney for Thorsen released a statement to the Globe on Wednesday morning.
“I did not make any remark or make any statement to any person that was racially or sexually insensitive or inappropriate. I do not engage in that type of speech or conduct,” Thorsen said in the statement.
“I was aware that [Patten] was behaving strangely during this trip and was not representing the State in an appropriate or positive way,” Thorsen said. “This presented a dilemma on how to complete the meeting, but because of the time constraints, I endeavored to do so.”
Thorsen said he and his chief of staff debriefed both the state’s human resources offices and state police immediately after the trip.
“The allegations made in this matter are very serious,” he said. “I did not engage in the conduct described. Nor would I ever condone such conduct.”
Rebecca Atwood, president of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association that organizes neighbors and businesses in the area where the Cranston Street Armory is located, said the state’s response to the accusations is “totally inadequate and offensive.” She said McKee’s administration, which did not initially release Scout’s email in response to public records requests, “tried to cover it up, which is even more disrespectful.”
“It’s funny how there was serious momentum around this project... And then Scout reported these gross and violating behaviors to the governor and the brakes were slammed,” said Atwood.
Scout released its final report detailing its $56.8 million plans for the redevelopment of the state-owned Cranston Street Armory earlier this year. It included an indoor soccer complex, state offices, and a small business incubator. Mayor Brett P. Smiley’s 2023 legislative priorities for Providence included some public funding for the project, which he called necessary for the “blighted” building that has largely been vacant since the Rhode Island National Guard moved out in 1996.
But funding for the project was not included in the state budget released on June 2.
Siobhan Callahan, the executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, said the state was “not taking responsibility for their staff at the highest levels.”
“The state saying they have to ‘take another look’ at the project’s feasibility makes me wonder if they’re really just hurting Scout for reporting really disgusting behavior that shouldn’t still be happening in 2023,” said Callahan.
McKee issued a statement on May 8 that confirmed there were ongoing Human Resources and State Police investigations looking into allegations about Patten after the Philadelphia trip, but did not offer the public details about the allegations or the investigations. On May 9, McKee issued a second statement that said if Patten’s behavior was true, it was “disturbing, unacceptable and unfitting of anyone, especially an employee representing the state and who expects to be employed by the state.”
“This behavior prompted our administration to initiate and request the investigations, and we will have more to say once the process comes to a close,” said McKee in a statement.
The scope of the investigations are not yet clear. Calls to State Police spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Robert Creamer on Tuesday were not immediately returned.
“I think to read the content of those emails is certainly embarrassing for those involved [and] certainly embarrassing for the state,” Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha told WPRI-TV on Tuesday. “Whether it means more than just embarrassment... we’ll have to wait and see the results of the state police investigation.”
Jen Gazdacko, the former president of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, said that when she first walked into the Bok building in Philadelphia, designed by Scout Ltd., she marveled at how what was once a dilapidated school had been transformed by Scout Ltd. into a space for makers, small businesses, and nonprofits. It was exactly the kind of space that Providence needs, and that Scout Ltd. was supposed to help the city create at the Cranston Street Armory.
“After decades of work, this was supposed to be ‘it’,” Gazdacko said in a telephone interview. “Now it feels like we’re in limbo. It’s devastating.”
This article has been updated to include a statement from Jim Thorsen.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @FitzProv. Alexa Gagosz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz. Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @bamaral44.