Brian Sonenstein is a reporter covering incarceration and the prison abolition movement. He is a columnist for the Portland Phoenix, co-founder of Shadowproof.com, and co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast. Shadowproof.com/beyond-prisons

Despite being questioned about sexual misconduct allegations before the June 12 primary election, Jon Gale was determined to stay in the running for Cumberland County District Attorney.

As a result, voters will have no choice at all as his opponent, Jonathan Sahrbeck, assumes one of the most powerful offices in the state without contest.

Maine Democratic Party Chair Phil Bartlett initially told reporters he learned of allegations just before news outlets reported them on October 29. But in a letter to his colleagues, Bartlett conceded he actually first heard of them before the primary early June.

Those allegations were made in an anonymous letter, which was written by someone who said they knew one of Gale’s victims. It claimed Gale had harassed and manipulated women and been the subject of a human resources investigation before leaving Unum in 2004. The author wanted an investigation and thought Gale should “explain the situation instead of hide from it.”

The letter was sent to Seth Levy, one of Gale’s primary opponents, who had shared his own story of being sexually abused during the campaign. Levy immediately notified Bartlett, who confronted Gale. Gale denied the charges.

“I don’t know what the Democratic Party leadership did to investigate,” Levy said in an interview with the Phoenix. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence they were aggressively pursuing it.”

So Levy took the letter to the Bangor Daily News (BDN) and the Portland Press Herald, and asked them to investigate. But they declined to run a story at that time because the claims were second-hand and their source was anonymous.

“I didn’t want to sabotage anyone,” Levy said. “That letter probably came to me because I had been vocal about my experience and the importance of reaching out to victims. I not only had the personal sense that it was right to investigate, but I was reached out to by someone who thought this should be pursued. So I went to [reporters] and said I don’t know what’s here and it has to be investigated. Whatever happens, happens.”

Bartlett did not ask Gale to drop out after their conversation in June. He said he received no other information until one of Gale’s former colleagues at Unumcontacted the party on October 27. The next day, that person met with Bartlett and Katie Mae Simpson, the party’s executive director. Bartlett said they then had a “lengthy conversation” with Gale, who again denied wrongdoing.

Bartlett said that later that day, he was contacted by someone who identified as a victim, who provided a “detailed and compelling” account of Gale’s conduct. Bartlett confirmed her employment at Unum, contacted Gale, and asked him to withdraw. But Gale refused. 

Meanwhile, the BDN was working on its own investigation and spoke with a number of people who worked with him at Unum, including three women who identified as Gale’s victims. Reporters contacted Bartlett, who confirmed he had just asked Gale to withdraw.

Gale finally dropped out after BDN’s story ran that evening. He denied he victimized anyone but admitted to extramarital affairs. While declining specifics, he said he “did not imagine those past decisions could possibly result in this scenario.”

But they did. By putting his personal ambitions above his obligation to be forthright with the community, Gale robbed voters of a say in a competitive race — one that drew the passion and participation of so many people in the county. That decision squandered an important opportunity to reduce harm in a prosecutorial district that impacts more people than any other in the state.  

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