Politics & Other Mistakes: Insulting consulting

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This is a good time to be a consultant. Currently, a surplus of idiots in state government seems willing to pay exorbitant fees to hire somebody to explain why the stupid things they did weren’t quite as stupid as they appeared.

In early April, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey got the consultant pandemic started when he employed a public relations specialist to rationalize why he hadn’t really done anything wrong by having a secret affair with a married subordinate. Frey took this step only after realizing the Bangor Daily News was about to publish an exposé of his philandering.

Al DiamonThis consultant told him to admit he made a minor mistake and to promise not to do it again.

Frey’s fellow Democrats, fearful of offending one of their own, couldn’t figure out what to say about his transgression, so after a couple of days, legislative leaders hired their own consultant to investigate the matter and tell them what to think.

The result was a 30-page report released late on Friday, June 2, after most of the news media had headed off to happy hour. Deborah Whitworth, who sports more letters after her name than the average Nobel laureate, produced a “Workplace Assessment” purporting to reveal whether Frey’s indiscretion had poisoned the atmosphere at the Office of the Attorney General.

The result is a linguistic exercise in comical acrobatics interspersed with the occasional erroneous factoid.

Early in her report, Whitworth writes that she was “made aware” that Frey “disclosed several months ago that he was involved in a romantic relationship with a subordinate.” The relationship was months old, but the disclosure had come barely a week before Whitworth was hired and only under duress, because the mini-scandal was about to hit the news media.

Nevertheless, Whitworth pledged to determine if the AG’s staff had been impacted by this revelation. Her report begins with a couple of paragraphs detailing how transparent her investigation would be and citing what a swell job she’d done over the years in sorting out similar cases.

She then lists the staffers she planned to interview, chosen not by herself but by a legislative aide. She also learned that the internal investigation of Frey’s behavior, conducted by Chief Deputy AG Christopher Taub — an investigation that determined Taub’s boss did nothing illegal or against any rules — had been completed without anybody ever writing anything down. Taub’s excuse seems to be that that’s the way such matters have always been handled.

On to the interviews. Whitworth grilled Frey by asking him such probing questions as whether he could define a “positive work culture” and whether he could describe “the best part of your job.” She does get the AG to admit, “I don’t see a problem with the relationship. There is consent, no favoritism, no negative or positive consequence relating to the relationship.”

Such a romantic.

The interviews with staffers were equally enlightening. Nobody had much of anything negative to say about the guy who could fire them if he wanted to. Nobody was particularly bothered by the affair. Everybody just wanted to get back to work.

Perhaps you’re thinking some of these employees were being less than forthcoming in their responses, but Whitworth assures us she’s a human lie detector, who would quickly spot such prevarications. “During each interview (as is my ordinary course practice), I made a credibility determination as to how each participant was responding,” she wrote, “and I have no reservations as to the accuracy of the answers.”

Whitworth’s conclusion was that the AG’s office was functioning as spiffily as ever, in spite of Frey’s admitted “error in judgment” by concealing his affair for months. “[T]he work of the OAG has not been diminished nor has the reputation been tarnished,” she wrote.

It’s hard to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Except that maybe the AG, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, should be held to a higher standard than the average horn-dog boss. Maybe his office needs an explicit policy dealing with workplace romances. Maybe investigations into complaints about such liaisons should be conducted by somebody who isn’t beholden to the person being investigated.

Maybe we should hire another consultant to look into all that.

My email isn’t working. I’ve engaged a consultant to fix it.

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