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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Former high-ranking Rhode Island official Jim Thorsen is breaking his silence about a now-infamous email alleging he and another state director behaved badly on a business trip to Philadelphia, saying he did his best to navigate a difficult situation.
State consultant Scout Ltd. officials wrote the email in March after Thorsen, then director of the R.I. Department of Administration, and state property director David Patten traveled to visit a facility the company redeveloped in Philadelphia as it sought a contract to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory.
“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 in a statement distributed by his attorney. “This presented a dilemma on how to complete the meeting, but because of the time constraints, I endeavored to do so.”
Thorsen emphasized that he had gone to the state’s human resources offices immediately upon landing in Rhode Island after the trip, accompanied by his chief of staff, and said he has debriefed both HR and the R.I. State Police about what happened.
The email — which alleged “bizarre, offensive” behavior that was “blatantly sexist, racist and unprofessional” — focused mostly on Patten’s actions during the daylong trip. But Scout officials also accused Thorsen of failing to intervene along the way.
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“We will not permit Patten or Thorsen to return to Bok ever again as we do not tolerate this type of behavior in our community,” Scout officials wrote in the email.
Gov. Dan McKee’s office fought for nearly three months to keep the email secret before R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office forced its release last week. The ruling came in response to separate public records complaints filed by Target 12 and The Providence Journal.
The email has since gone viral, drawing national news coverage from The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, NBC News and The Daily Mail among other outlets.
The directors were in Philadelphia to see if the Scout’s facility there, called Bok, could be replicated at the long-vacant Armory.
Thorsen — who left his state job in April to rejoin the U.S. Treasury Department — said the clarification “of greatest importance” to him was 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.”
He did not directly address whether he rebuked Patten in the moment as he made sexually suggestive and racially insensitive remarks to various individuals they met at Bok.
In response to another allegation, Thorsen wrote, “I did not request or have anyone else request preferential treatment from Scout.” He insisted he had given no indication to Scout that their hospitality toward the two officials would determine whether the McKee administration agreed to support Scout’s request for over $55 million to fund the Armory project.
Officials at Scout alleged that Patten demanded that they open a high-end Italian restaurant at Bok to serve the two officials lunch, suggesting they’d be willing to ask its owners for “a favor” if they really wanted the money from the administration.
Thorsen said he’d been in the dark about their lunch plans.
“I sat down to eat with two Scout Ltd. representatives at around 11 a.m.,” he wrote. “There were no other diners in the restaurant at that time. Because it was so early, I did not attach significance to that observation.”
He said he later asked to reimburse Scout for the cost of lunch with his own money.
As for the allegation in the email that Thorsen told Patten he could take home multiple free items from vendors at Bok because they were “de minimus” — State House shorthand for a gift with a low-enough value to avoid triggering state ethics rules — Thorsen suggested it had only happened once.
“I saw him 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,” Thorsen wrote. “When I later learned that the box contained sneakers, I directed him to return them immediately.” (He added that Patten had sent them back by FedEx the following Monday.)
“The allegations made in this matter are very serious,” he wrote. “I did not engage in the conduct described. Nor would I ever condone such conduct.”
Speaking to reporters later Wednesday, McKee said he hadn’t read the entire statement from Thorsen but defended his former cabinet member, who like McKee hails from Cumberland.
“He served the state of Rhode Island very well,” McKee said, adding that by cooperating with investigators, “Jim’s just showing how professional he is.”
Patten’s attorney, Michael Lynch, has attributed his client’s behavior to a “mental health event.”
Patten has been on leave from his $175,000 per year job since three days after the trip on March 10. He remains on paid administrative leave, despite the email having since launched a R.I. State Police criminal investigation and a separate human-resources probe.
“To me, the content of those emails is certainly embarrassing for those involved and embarrassing for the state,” Neronha said Tuesday during a live interview on 12 News at 4. “Whether it means more than just embarrassment — we’ll have to see the results of the state police investigation.”
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