AUGUSTA — When Aaron Frey was a teenager, his parents bought him a joke gift – a mug that says, “Trust me, I’m a lawyer.”

Years later, he put that mug on the desk at his criminal defense practice, but it now has a new home in the Office of the Attorney General. The Maine Legislature chose Frey in December to be the state’s top prosecutor. His colleagues from three terms there said he has a reputation for being intelligent and detail-oriented – and, as that old mug ironically promises, trusted by members of both major parties.

“I sometimes found myself on the opposite side of an issue with Aaron – as we might have, had we had a case together in court – but it was never personal,” said Republican former state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta. “We went into the discussion as friends and came out … as friends.”

Frey was not well known outside of his legislative district in the Bangor area, but he will be asked to take on high-profile issues in his new job.

The relationship between Maine’s government and American Indian tribes has grown increasingly tense over a host of tribal sovereignty and economic issues. A recent mistrial in a murder case has called into question the credibility of the state’s chief medical examiner, whose agency falls under the umbrella of the Attorney General’s Office. The new administration has promised a different approach to the opioid crisis. Legislators and advocates will likely expect Frey to weigh in on criminal justice policy, including the future of the state’s only juvenile detention facility and proposals to seal or expunge the records of people with past marijuana convictions. Frey will also need to provide legal advice on the conflict between marijuana laws at the state and federal levels.

He will not inherit one challenge from his predecessor, however. Janet Mills, the Democratic former attorney general and now governor, clashed often with former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, sometimes in court. In particular, they disagreed about the type of national litigation Maine should support. But Frey, also a Democrat, will not have to contend with an adversary in the state’s executive branch in the same way his predecessor did.

“I think we have enough respect for each other that we’re going to work out any different points of view that come up,” Frey said.

EXPERIENCE IN THE BELTWAY

Frey, 39, was born in Bangor and moved to Dixmont in elementary school.

His father, now retired, worked for nearly four decades at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, most recently in the Office of Family Independence. His mother started her career as a nurse and later became a grade school teacher. As a teenager, Frey attended Nokomis Regional High School in Newport and participated in Boys State, a citizenship program sponsored by the American Legion. He was elected governor of Boys State and attended the national meeting of Boys Nation.

He studied politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. The school’s location gave him a front row seat to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary in 2000. He saved the security pin the U.S. Secret Service gave him when he worked on Democrat Al Gore’s campaign, but he also kept a signed placard from the late Republican John McCain. When he had the chance to introduce George W. Bush on C-SPAN, he declined because he thought it would not be fair for the candidate to be introduced by someone who was working for his opponent.

Frey moved to Washington, D.C., when he graduated, and he worked as a lobbyist for the National Court Reporters Association for four years. But he knew he did not want to settle in the capital.

“While I was really excited to have this opportunity to take my politics degree out for a spin and meet great people, it was not home,” he said.

He enrolled at the Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island and got his law degree in 2008. After a year at a Bangor firm, he established his own practice focused on criminal defense work, child protective cases and family law. He was often appointed to represent defendants who could not afford private lawyers.

Frey, who still lives in Bangor, said his decade as a defense attorney gave him a belief in rehabilitation.

“These are all individuals who have lives, who have successes and failures, and a potential to succeed once they are helped to get straightened out,” Frey said. “I was left with that. It would be really easy to say that person, they robbed a bank, we can never resolve their issues and we just have to forget all about them. I never got to the point where it was easy to forget that these people are individuals, and I always had the hope that they would figure out the way to not be back in my office.”

‘EVERYONE LISTENS TO HIM’

Frey said he remained interested in politics, but he hesitated when he was first asked to run for one of the seats representing the Bangor area in the Maine House of Representatives.

He eventually agreed to put his name on the ballot, and he defeated Republican incumbent James Parker in 2012, a year when Democrats regained control of the State House.

As a lawmaker, Frey served on the influential Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs, the panel that crafts the state’s budget and decides which policies get implemented. Because of his experience as a lawyer, he was often tasked with the budget work related to county jails, indigent legal services and other criminal justice matters.

His colleagues on that committee described Frey as analytical and intelligent.

“He’s not a legislator who just likes to hear himself talk, but when he does talk, I think everyone listens to him,” said Rep. Erik Jorgensen, a Portland Democrat who sat next to Frey at the committee.

They also said he worked well with both Republicans and Democrats.

“Although he is a proud Democrat, I don’t think he is an ideologue,” said Katz, who also served on the appropriations committee.

“Lawyers are trained to study and argue issues, but not to make those debates personal,” Katz added. “He’s certainly transferred that theory of life from the courtroom to the Legislature as well.”

Frey won re-election to his fourth term in the Legislature in November, but gave up the seat when he successfully campaigned for the job as attorney general.

Unlike most states, where voters choose an attorney general in a statewide election, the Legislature selects Maine’s constitutional officers. The party with the majority of seats has a clear advantage in hiring for those jobs, including the attorney general. Maine’s process opens the door to someone who, although not well known by a large number of voters, has the trust of his or her party.

ONE OF FIVE AG CANDIDATES

The Office of the Attorney General includes more than 200 employees and provides a wide range of legal services to the state.

The state’s attorneys prosecute homicides, financial crimes and some drug cases. The office also handles all child protection cases, investigates the use of deadly force by police officers, provides legal advice and representation to other state departments, and conducts civil and criminal investigations.

The office budget in 2018 was $34.7 million. As attorney general, Frey will earn approximately $106,000. His predecessor, Mills, had a salary of $119,344 in 2017, the most recent year available in state records.

Frey was one of five candidates for the Democratic nominee for attorney general. One of his opponents was state Sen. Michael Carpenter, a Houlton Democrat who served as attorney general from 1990 to 1994.

After he was eliminated in a runoff, Carpenter said he supported Frey. He pointed in particular to Frey’s experience in District Court, handling misdemeanor charges and child protective cases.

“It’s not the high-profile stuff,” Carpenter said. “I can’t overestimate how important it is that the attorney general has done those kinds of cases.”

Frey has never worked as a prosecutor. But to Drew Ketterer, who served as attorney general from 1995 to 2001, the greater learning curve will be managing a large staff with a wide range of responsibilities.

“The Office of the Attorney General does a lot more things than prosecute criminal cases,” Ketterer said. “It’s so much larger than that when you’re talking about the delivery of legal services to state employees who are trying to discharge their jobs and they need legal guidance.”

Tina Heather Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said she did not know Frey well because they practice in different parts of the state. But she said she thinks Frey’s experience will be an asset.

“He is familiar with indigent defense and all the challenges that brings, and I think that is necessary when you’re the top law enforcement officer in the state,” Nadeau said.

‘VALUE IN BEING PROACTIVE’

One of Frey’s first public acts on the job was to join a national lawsuit against President Trump. His participation in the suit continues a trend of attorneys general in Maine and around the country taking action against large corporations or, more recently, the federal government.

In 1994, a small group of attorneys general filed separate lawsuits against the tobacco industry for reimbursement of health care costs from smoking-related illnesses. The rest of the states took similar action, and Ketterer was attorney general when Maine won a $1.4 million settlement. That case was the true beginning of multistate legal action, Ketterer said.

“That was limited to going after companies,” Ketterer said. “It wasn’t suing the federal government. That’s a newer phenomenon that came with primarily Republican attorneys general during the Obama years. Now this issue is kind of on the other foot with Donald J. Trump as the president.”

Frey signed on to a federal lawsuit to block the president’s plan to build a border wall without permission from Congress, arguing that the president’s decision to declare a national emergency is unconstitutional. Efforts are underway in Congress to overturn that declaration, and all four members of Maine’s delegation have said they will oppose the president’s decision.

A spokesperson said the cost to join the lawsuit was minimal – a filing fee of approximately $300 and some staff time – and the attorney general was concerned that the declaration would jeopardize federal funds meant for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.

“With respect to multistate litigation, I am mindful of the significant authority entrusted to me,” he said, adding that he is wary of “committing the State to litigation for any reason other than because it is the result of a balanced consideration. I do believe there is significant value in being proactive in advancing our state’s interests, but this would only be after a legal issue has arisen.”

Katz said Frey often defended the role of the Legislature during disputes about executive power during the LePage administration, so he was not surprised to see his former colleague join the lawsuit over the national emergency. He noted that attorneys general of both major parties are under pressure to join partisan litigation, and he believed Frey will be able to maintain the bipartisan respect he earned as a lawmaker.

“Everyone knows that this attorney general is a Democrat,” Katz said. “The Democratic Legislature elected him, and that’s fine, but he wants to try to ensure that he is in fact someone who is mostly above the partisan fray.”

 

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