Innovation Ecosystem

Petty and petulant

Could Gov. Dan McKee face impeachment for condoning alleged corrupt behavior by high-ranking officials in his administration – and then trying to cover it up?

Photo by Richard Asinof/File photo

Gov. Dan McKee, at a pharmacy in Olneyville in 2021, promoting flu shots.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/12/23
The revelations about the alleged corrupt behavior by former DOA Director Thorsen and DCAMM Director Patten, and an apparent cover-up of their behavior by Gov. McKee’s chief of staff, Tony Afonso, may now spark the Attorney General to investigate the role played by Thorsen, Patten, and Afonso in orchestrating the eviction of a community agency at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket.
What causes Gov. McKee and his staff to behave in what appears to be a petty, petulant manner when their alleged bad behavior is challenged? Had the eviction of the community agency at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket, supported by the DOA and DCAMM, been discussed at length with Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt? What role did Richard Charest, then the director of RI BHDDH, now EOHHS Secretary, play in helping to facilitate -- or to avert -- the eviction of Community Care Alliance from the state-owned property at 181 Cumberland St.? When will reporters Ted Nesi, Tim White, Eli Sherman and Kathy Gregg find the time to read ConvergenceRI? Had Senate President Ruggerio given his tacit approval for the eviction to take place, following the Dec. 16, 2022, meeting? When is the Dignity Bus scheduled to arrive in Woonsocket?
Time and again, so many good people fail to step up and report bad behavior for fear of suffering repercussions. Witness the recent tweet by Tom McCarthy, formerly with the R.I. Department of Health, who wrote: “When you peel back any of these situations, you always find “good” people that kept their head down and said/did nothing. Thank you to my former colleagues that don’t stay quiet and do the right thing, every day, in their own offices and fight to push back the tide.”
As truth-teller Steve Ahlquist tweeted out: “Unfortunately, the only way to enforce APRA is to be rich enough to afford a lawyer.”
On the other side of the coin, there are radio talk show flunkies such as Dan Yorke, pals with Gov. Dan McKee, who has used his bombast behind the microphone to attack news reporters asking questions about the Governor’s bad behavior. As today’s ConvergenceRI story demonstrates, the bad behavior by Thorsen and Patten does not appear to be an isolated incident, nor should revelations contained in the email be dismissed as a problem related to one individual and his alleged mental health struggles.
I disagree with the conclusions drawn by radio producer Bill Bartholomew, who had tweeted: “David Patten is clearly a sick man, but he should have already resigned from his post. With so many kind people working on housing and economic development in RI, it’s a shame that this fool is now the face of those efforts for the world to see.”
Dismissing Patten’s behavior as a one-off may prove to be risky business, such as when Ron Ziegler, President Nixon's press secretary, dismissed the 1972 Watergate break-in as "a third-rate burglary."
The ghost of Andy Burkhardt, former managing editor at The Providence Journal, is someone I would like to invite to dinner, along with the ghost of Adrienne Rich, poet and author of “The Dream of a Common Language” [and former resident of Montague Center, Mass.], to be joined with the ghost of Robert Borsetti, a scientist with New England Biolabs – and the ghosts of Professor John Conway, historian, and his wife, Jill Kerr Conway, the former president of Smith College.
These days, it is the conversations with truth-tellers that I miss the most. Burkhardt always possessed a blunt honesty; Rich’s insights into language were inspirational; Borsetti was brutally funny in his ability to cut to the chase and talk about the ways things were; and the Conways were down to earth about the way they saw the world.
What they required, in turn, was reciprocity in truth-telling on my part. If you ask me, how am I doing, do not expect me to say, "Fine."

PROVIDENCE – Thanks to the legal acumen of R.I. State Attorney General Peter Neronha and the persistence of reporter Kathy Gregg at The Providence Journal and the Target 12 investigative team at WPRI, the public has now learned what was contained in an email detailing the alleged corrupt behavior by James Thorsen, the former director of the R.I. Department of Administration, and David Patten, the director of the Department of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance [DCAMM], now on administrative leave, during a March 10, 2023, visit to Philadelphia to meet with representatives from Scout Ltd., a developer who had bid $57 million to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory.

The details of the alleged corrupt behavior by two high-ranking members of Gov. McKee’s administration – as well as the concerted effort by Gov. Dan McKee and his chief of staff, Tony Afonso, to keep the contents of the email hidden from the public – have raised serious questions about the McKee administration’s conduct.

• What were the reasons behind the decision to leave out any funds in the state’s FY 2024 $14 billion budget, enacted by the R.I. House of Representatives on Friday, June 9, to support Scout’s $57 million redevelopment of the Cranston Street Armory? Was it in retaliation for sending the email, which detailed the boorish and alleged corrupt behavior by Patten and Thorsen on the March 10 trip?

“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,” the Scout team responded, in the aftermath of the email becoming public, in a statement reported by WPRI. “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.”

• Why does Patten continue to be employed by the state of Rhode Island, having been placed on administrative leave on May 30, following his being placed on a medical leave, at $174,490 a year?

The email had provided a litany of examples of alleged egregious behavior by Patten and Thorsen during the visit. After reading the email, John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, expressed outrage, as reported by WPRI.

The email, Marion told WPRI: “…Reveals disgusting racist and misogynistic behavior by Mr. Patten and the utter indifference of Mr. Thorsen who enabled it.”

“It also shows what appear to be several violations of the state’s code of ethics,” Marion continued. “Rhode Island officials cannot accept gifts of greater than $25 in value, they can’t use their official positions to financially benefit themselves, and in certain circumstances they have to report out-of-state travel and accommodations.”

[Marion] added: “By shaking down the potential vendor for a lavish meal, among other things, Mr. Patten crossed the line from boorish to possibly illegal behavior, and Mr. Thorsen enabled it.”

• Why did the McKee administration seek for three months to keep the contents of the email hidden from public view? Were there other revelations about the past behavior of Patten and Thorsen that the Governor and his team feared might come to light?

The original email, written by Lindsey Cannapieco, managing partner at Scout Ltd., and her colleague, Everett Abitbol, director of hospitality and development at Scout, which had been forwarded to Tony Afonso, Gov. McKee’s chief of staff, laid out a series of boorish incidences – calling out the behavior by Thorsen and Patten as “blatantly sexist, racist, and unprofessional.”

In one such example, the email documented the offensive behavior by Patten and Thorsen during their visit to the Jefferson Wyss Wellness Center, one of the tenants at the Scout owned and operated Bok building, describing the following interaction with Dr. Marc Altshuler, clinical leader of the center and a associate professor and physician of family and community medicine.

That interaction, captured in the email and then reported on at length by The Boston Globe, caught ConvergenceRI’s attention, in particular because of the way that Patten and Thorsen appeared to disparage those who were homeless, voicing out loud their hostility, in front of the clinic’s patients.

The Globe reported: 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.

“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 [in] here?’ [emphasis added] – in front of patients and staff.”

The Globe story continued: 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.

After reading that exchange, ConvergenceRI wondered:

• Where else had the tag team of Thorsen, Patten, and Afonso been involved in efforts related to homelessness on behalf of Gov. Dan McKee and his administration?

The answer: The forced eviction of Community Care Alliance from the state-owned property at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket.

The forced eviction of a community agency – and the subsequent purchase of the building by the City of Woonsocket for $730,000 – had apparently been policy decisions by the McKee administration, facilitated by Thorsen and Patten and Afonso.

In the wake of the revelations of the debacle of a business trip on March 10, 2023,  to the Scout-owned Bok complex in Philadelphia, the controversy raised new questions about the roles played by Thorsen, Patten, Afonso, and Gov. Dan McKee , in ConvergenceRI's opinion.

Petty and petulant?
On Dec. 5, 2022, ConvergenceRI published a story, “When the state evicts community agencies,” which detailed how the Community Care Alliance had been evicted from its state-owned property at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket by the R.I. Department of Behavioral Health Care, Development Disabilities, and Hospitals. [See link to story below.]

The ConvergenceRI story began: A professor of American musical blues and heartache, Tom Waits, once penned a lyric that captured the inherent nature of American capitalism, in his song, “Step Right Up.”

Step right up. Everyone's a winner. Bargains galore. The closing lines, after a humorous if not tragic journey through the jargon of advertising slogans and come-ons, captured the bathos of consumerism: “The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.”

That was the lyric ConvergenceRI found himself singing out loud after a source sent him the news that Community Care Alliance of Rhode Island, the nonprofit community agency headquartered in Woonsocket, had been notified by the legal counsel for the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals that the agency was being evicted from the state-owned property located at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket.

The eviction notice was the exclamation point on a sad, years-long saga, involving both the Raimondo administration and the McKee administration, reported on in great detail by ConvergenceRI.

Even during a time of growing need for facilities to address the burgeoning demand for community-based mental health and behavioral health services, the state apparently had no appetite to invest resources in rehabilitation of its own, state-owned building, where the state’s failure to conduct proper maintenance, repair and upkeep, following a leak from the roof, resulted in the demise of the building.

The eviction notice, mailed out on Nov. 18, 2022, by Kate Breslin Harden, Chief of the Legal Division at BHDDH, gave Community Care Alliance 90 days to remove its property and personal possessions from 181 Cumberland St.

The great irony, of course, is that less than a week later, the landlord, the state, after evicting the tenant, Community Care Alliance, from the state-owned building, the R.I. Department of Administration signed a purchase order for $1.44 million for the Community Care Alliance, in order to fund a temporary housing shelter to serve the “unhoused” population at the Sure Stay Hotel located on Route 116 in Smithfield. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A homeless shelter grows in Smithfield.”

Translated, as Tom Waits put it so aptly, “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.”

The ConvergenceRI story had continued: One would be hard-pressed to invent the plot for a made-for-TV series that captured the apparent absurd contradictions in state policy.

“The state in their wisdom thinks that this is the right thing to do by evicting services out of their buildings who have paid rent for years,” said John J. Tassoni, Jr., the president and CEO of the Substance Use and Mental Health Leadership of Rhode Island. “The hospitals will be overwhelmed, and people will not get services,” Tassoni continued. “More deaths, more overdoses and mental health issues.

Further, Tassoni said, the problem did not appear to be a lack of state resources. “With a $660 million [budget] surplus, you would think that this would be money well spent to keep people out of the hospitals.” There are also “the billions from the federal government.”

“I just don’t understand,” Tassoni said. “Most of Rhode Island folks are one paycheck from sleeping in their cars or in the shelters. The system has collapsed.”

Response to the ConvergenceRI story
The ConvergenceRI story had apparently provoked enough “good trouble” that Senate President Dominick Ruggerio convened a meeting to discuss what had happened.

That meeting was held on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in the 4th floor conference room of the R.I. Department of Administration building. Present at the meeting were: Tony Afonso, Jim Thorsen, Jacob Bissaillon [chief of staff to R.I. Senate President Ruggerio and former legal counsel], Christopher Farrell [senior advisor to Gov. McKee], and David Patten.

Also reported to be in attendance were Sen. Melissa Murray, vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Benedict Lessing, president and CEO of Community Care Alliance.

Following the meeting, Patten sent out an email to the attendees with an attachment of a PDF of a report dated Feb. 17, 2019, based on a site visit conducted three years earlier, on Nov. 18, 2016, by EMG Engineering, an engineering firm headquartered in Ownings Mills, Maryland, a “Facility Condition Assessment.”

The report had projected that over a 10-year period, through 2029, the building would require approximately $1.2 million in capital needs improvement. The out-of-date report had apparently been used to back up the position of DOA and DCAMM that the community agency be evicted, and that the state-owned building be sold, which it was, on March 15, 2023, at auction, for $730,000.

The City of Woonsocket subsequently purchased the building for $730,000, under the state law giving the municipality the right of first refusal, after Thorsen made a finding about the building at 181 Cumberland St., saying that it was found “to be surplus to [the state’s] needs,” in a letter dated April 6, 2023, allowing the city to purchase the property. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Waiting for a rebirth of housing, hope, and wonder.”] The City of Woonsocket then made its desire known to turn the building over to the city’s Department of Public Works, for future use.

But wait, there is much more to the story
At a March 20, 2023, hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Thorsen and Sen Murray got tangled up in a debate over what had really happened regarding the disposition of 181 Cumberland St. – and the aggressive role that Thorsen had apparently played in shepherding the eviction of the Community Care Alliance.

During the testimony, Thorsen said that the biggest problem facing the behavioral health infrastructure in Rhode Island was the failure by community agencies to pay rent at state-owned facilities, which Sen. Murray then debunked, saying that it did not apply to the Community Care Alliance.

Sen. Murray also challenged Thorsen on his characterization of what had happened regarding 181 Cumberland St. [See link below to ConvergenceRI, “A culture war on behavioral health,” which includes a link to the video of the Senate Finance Committee hearing.] As ConvergenceRI reported, Sen. Murray testified as follows:

SEN. MURRAY: To clarify, this wasn’t a group home, and it actually wasn’t vacant. And, it housed a commercial kitchen that [once] served 1,800 people a week and [as many as] 3,000 a week.

I am waiting with baited breath to see the plan, because what I don’t want to see is that other behavioral health organizations, not group homes, that provide services to different communities, they are the ones that come up the losers.

This organization [Community Care Alliance] had a lease. Yes, it was agreed [upon]. But the maintenance was $300,000. And folks can debate that, right?

But the investment in the community we’re talking about is millions here [in the proposed RICAP spending budget]; $300,000 could have saved this organization from having to vacate. Instead of investing the money, we evicted them.

I am very much looking forward to the plan, because I don’t want to see this happen in [other] communities. I know how important this organization is to Woonsocket and the people they serve, [because of] housing insecurity and food insecurity and a myriad of other issues. I don’t want to see this happen again. The state made money [from the sale]. But Woonsocket is not going to see that.

Translated, Thorsen and Patten, apparently at the behest of the McKee administration, had been involved  in the decision to evict the Community Care Alliance from the state-owned facility at 181 Cumberland St., and Thorsen then had enabled the city of Woonsocket to purchase the building.

Further, the eviction proceeded with the apparent approval and support by Gov. McKee and his staff, based upon an out-of-date site visit made six years before, in 2016, and written up in a report that was more than three years old.

To quote the hard-working WPRO reporter, Steve Klamkin: “Really?”

Evictions have consequences

The eviction of the Community Care Alliance from the state-owned building at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket continues to reverberate, according to Benedict Lessing, Jr., president and CEO of the agency.

“Community Care Alliance was never reimbursed for relocation expenses and revenue related to the loss of more than 100 clients whose services were located at 181 Cumberland St.,” Lessing told ConvergenceRI. Moreover, Lessing continued, “Community Care Alliance continues to work with a local nonprofit to reestablish a working commercial kitchen that produces over 1,000 meals per week to persons residing in residential facilities and emergency shelters. This was the consequence of DCAMM and the state’s decision not to repair a building which it had been obligated to do, through a leasing arrangement, for more than 40 years.”

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