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Former top R.I. official James Thorsen defends his actions during infamous Philly work trip

The former R.I. director of administration says he never made sexist or racist remarks, and he reported the behavior of another state official, David Patten, when they returned

Rhode Island officials investigated for offensive remarks
Reporter Edward Fitzpatrick updates a story involving two Rhode Island officials who allegedly made racist and sexist remarks while on a business trip.

PROVIDENCE — Former state administration director James E. Thorsen on Wednesday defended his actions during a March business trip to Philadelphia, saying he never made racist or sexist comments and reported a fellow state official to human resources as soon as he returned.

Executives at Scout Ltd., a company seeking to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory, wrote an e-mail alleging 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 Thorsen.

Governor Daniel J. McKee tried to keep the e-mail secret for three months before releasing it on Thursday, one day after Attorney General Peter F. Neronha ordered its release. Since then, the Patten’s alleged racist and sexist behavior has received coverage in the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and NBC News.

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Thorsen, who has since returned to the US Department of Treasury, released a statement through attorney Kevin J. Bristow, saying he was aware that Patten “was behaving strangely during this trip and was not representing the state in an appropriate or positive way.”

Patten’s actions “presented a dilemma on how to complete the meeting,” he wrote, “but because of time constraints, I endeavored to do so.”

The Scout Ltd. e-mail says that during the trip Patten 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, the e-mail says, Patten 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.”

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And, the e-mail says, Patten sent a text ordering 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.” He added,” “You have three hours to convince us to give you $55M.”

Thorsen said that as he flew back to Rhode Island, he arranged to meet with the state’s Human Resources office to discuss Patten’s conduct. The flight landed at approximately 3:30 p.m. March 10 and he went directly to HR, along with his chief of staff, “to express my concerns regarding the director’s conduct and his health.”

He said he later provided a more detailed statement to Human Resources and to the State Police about what he’d heard and seen during the trip.

Thorsen emphasized that, “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.”

In their e-mail, Scout Ltd. 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.”

But the executives said, “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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In his statement, Thorsen said, “”The allegations made in this matter are very serious. I did not engage in the conduct described. Nor would I ever condone such conduct.”

The Scout Ltd. executives said that Patten insisted on taking something home with him during almost every visit with tenants in the company’s Bok building, including vegan cheese, hand-blown glass, and a pair of sneakers.

“At each instance when doing this (Patten) made all very uncomfortable as he forced his requests on people who have a relationship and trust with us,” the executives wrote. “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.’ "

In his statement, Thorsen said he advised Patten “that an item he obtained was de minimis” when he saw Patten “holding a shoe box that he advised me was a sneaker box that had been given to him by one of Bok’s vendors/tenants during the tour.”

“When I later learned that the box contained sneakers, I directed him to return them immediately,” he said. And on March 13 Patten told him he’d returned the sneakers via Federal Express, he said.

“I did not request or have anyone else request preferential treatment from Scout Ltd.,” Thorsen said. “Nor did I advise or cause anyone else to advise Scout Ltd. that the way in which I was treated by Scout Ltd. would have any impact on the prospective awarding of state funding relating to the proposed Armory project.”

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Thorsen concluded his statement by saying he plans to continue cooperating with state authorities “to fully investigate what occurred during this trip.”


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