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Open government advocate fired after accusation of inappropriate behavior

ALBANY – Robert Freeman has worked for decades promoting and protecting the state’s Freedom of Information and the public's right to get access to documents agencies didn’t always want to provide.

On Monday, Freeman, the head of a state office designed to promote government transparency, was fired for engaging in a sexually inappropriate way with a female reporter earlier this month. She works for the Journal News/lohud.com, a downstate news company owned by Gannett. She had asked for a meeting with Freeman to discuss the state’s public officers law.

Freeman, who could not be reached to comment Tuesday morning, was fired after being interviewed Monday by investigators with the state Inspector General’s Office.

John Milgrim, a spokesman for the IG’s office, said he could not comment on what he called an ongoing investigation.

The matter was first reported by USA TODAY Network’s Albany bureau, which is part of the same news chain that employed the unnamed female reporter.

Sexually explicit photographs were also found on Freeman’s work computer along with sexually suggestive emails with a woman the Inspector General's Office said he may have met last year at Syracuse University.

The Journal News told the Gannett Albany bureau that the young female reporter filed a complaint against Freeman’s behavior. In a letter to Freeman's boss on Monday, the IG's Office said the case commenced June 13 with the woman's complaint.

In a letter to the head of the state Department of State, which had employed Freeman since the 1970s, Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro said there was “compelling evidence” that Freeman acted in a sexually inappropriate manner with the downstate reporter. The IG’s letter was dated Monday. It said Freeman had been counseled in 2013 about “inappropriate behavior in the workplace” involving several female employees at his agency.

Tagliafierro said the female reporter testified that Freeman made “unwanted physical contact” with her, including “squeezing her shoulder; touching her waist, back and buttocks with his hand; parting her braids from her face and placing them behind her shoulders; hugging her; and kissing her on her cheek while holding her head.’’

The woman also described “very personal and inappropriate statements by Freeman, which included gender and racially based derogatory comments” while Freeman was looking at her chest area.

The sexually suggestive emails involving a woman at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University revealed that Freeman and the woman engaged in some sort of personal relationship after he possibly met her as part of his official business sometime in 2018. The email exchanges, which the IG characterized as including “provocative pornographic images and sexual intimations,’’ were occurring as recently as earlier this month, according to the IG’s letter to the state Department of State.

In his session with state investigators, Freeman admitted to many of the allegations, according to the IG’s Office. Tagliafierro sent the findings immediately to Freeman’s agency for “immediate disciplinary action” against Freeman. He was fired later on Monday. The IG’s Office also sent information about Freeman’s work computer to the State Police.

For years, Freeman has headed the state’s Committee on Open Government. Over Republican and Democratic administrations, he angered many agency heads and governors by siding with media outlets – and the public – in efforts to make the state more transparent, especially when it came to releasing documents under the Freedom of Information Law and the state’s open meetings laws.

Records from the state comptroller's office show Freeman, 72,  joined the state in 1976, and his salary rose over the years to $121,000 in 2012; he retired that April and, with the Cuomo administration's budget division approval, rejoined the payroll at a reduced level of $40,234, the comptroller's records show. He also has been collecting an annual pension of $81,660 since his retirement, the comptroller's office said.

In a statement this afternoon, the inspector general said she appreciated the swift action taken against Freeman by the Department of State; she encouraged others who may have additional information about Freeman to contact the IG's office.

"The abuse of a public position to engage in illicit conduct will not be tolerated by anyone at any level in New York State Government,'' Tagliafierro said in the statement.

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