Seeking reelection, AG Frey has taken on corporate bad actors, but balked at criminal justice reform

Seeking a third term as Maine’s attorney general, Aaron Frey has used his position as the state’s top law enforcement officer to protect consumer privacy rights, take on corporate price fixers and challenge Republican attempts to slash regulations and roll back abortion rights. 

But Frey has also disappointed progressives in several key battles by opposing efforts to recognize tribal sovereignty, expand legal protections for workers and transition the state away from a carceral response to the opioid crisis towards one based on public health.

Frey, a former Democratic state legislator representing part of Bangor and Orono, became Maine’s 58th attorney general in 2018 after running a private legal practice in Bangor focusing on criminal defense and family law. 

With Democrats holding majorities in both chambers, Frey is likely to be selected to serve another two-year term as attorney general when the 131st Legislature kicks off on Dec. 7. Unlike many states, Maine’s constitutional officers — the attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer — are not popularly elected but instead selected by lawmakers at the beginning of the first session of each legislature.

Frey’s tenure as Maine’s chief prosecutor has coincided with a deepening crisis in the state’s indigent legal defense system where the number of lawyers willing to represent low-income defendants has plummeted from about 400 to roughly 160 over the last two years.

The ACLU of Maine has a pending class-action lawsuit against the state for failing its constitutional obligation to adequately represent low-income people.

Meagan Sway, the Maine ACLU’s policy director, said that Frey needs to be a part of the solution going forward. 

“Maine’s criminal legal system is in disarray: backlogs in the courts, interference with private conversations with lawyers, people being needlessly prosecuted for low-level offenses, and a lack of qualified defense counsel. Everyone has a responsibility to do more, including judges, the governor, the public, and the attorney general,” Sway said. “I appreciate Attorney General Frey’s willingness to have frank and honest discussions on these issues, and would also like to see more progress on them in the next legislative session.”

Taking on the pharmaceutical and fossil fuel industry

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey. | Photo by Jeff Kirlin

Frey launched his career as attorney general by involving Maine in several multi-state lawsuits against corporate bad actors.

In 2020, Frey joined a large coalition of states in a lawsuit targeting 26 generic drug manufacturers for engaging in “widespread conspiracy” to artificially inflate and manipulate prices and reduce competition.

“When generic drug manufacturers conspire to artificially inflate prices, they are essentially taking money out of consumers’ pockets, and I will fight vigorously to hold them accountable,” he said in a statement at the time.

That same year, Frey and 48 other attorneys general brought an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook for illegally acquiring competitors in a predatory manner and his office supported a Rhode Island lawsuit that argued that oil giants knowingly concealed information showing that production and use of their fossil fuel products were contributing to climate change.

Earlier this year, Frey helped reach a $391.5 million settlement with Google over its location tracking practices. Maine will receive more than $4 million from the settlement, which requires Google to provide more transparency measures for location tracking services. And in September, the four major lobby groups representing the internet, cable and wireless industries dropped a federal lawsuit challenging Maine’s strongest-in-the-nation privacy law, which restricts internet service providers from selling customer data without permission. Frey’s office had defended the law in court since 2020.

Frey also announced plans this year to take legal action against the manufacturers of PFAS, or so-called forever chemicals.

A backstop against Republican attacks on reproductive, voting rights

Frey has also used his office to thwart several attacks from former President Donald Trump’s administration on reproductive and voting rights and assistance for low-income people.

Soon after taking office, Frey challenged the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sometimes referred to as food stamps, because it could have ended the state’s ability to set its own eligibility rules for SNAP recipients. The changes could have impacted one in five Maine children.

Then ahead of the 2020 election, Frey sued the Trump administration for making changes within the U.S. Postal Service that threatened access to voting by mail.

“The Trump administration’s attempts to incapacitate the Post Office in the lead up to the 2020 general election constitute a clear effort to interfere with Mainers’ ability to vote safely by mail,” Frey said at the time.

In 2020, he also sent a letter to the White House urging the executive branch to cease planned regulatory rollbacks on fuel-efficiency standards and mercury emissions, among other cuts favoring large corporations. 

And prior to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning a national right to an abortion in the Dobbs decision last June, Frey attempted to intervene by asking the country’s highest court to strike down a Louisiana law that challenged Roe v. Wade, which barred states from restricting abortion access.

Following predecessor on failed War on Drugs, tribal relations

During Frey’s two terms as attorney general, the number of overdose deaths in Maine has increased, exacerbated by social isolation during the pandemic, a contaminated drug supply, and a host of other factors. And while Frey supported legislation decriminalizing the possession of syringes, fentanyl test strips and other paraphernalia, he has largely not responded to the pleas of people in recovery and harm-reduction advocates who say the state must decriminalize drug use and move the state’s response out of the purview of law enforcement and into the healthcare sector.

In 2021, Frey opposed a bill that would have eliminated criminal penalties for minor drug possession. Instead of facing incarceration, those in possession of such drugs could pay a small fine or be referred for an evidence-based assessment of treatment options for substance use disorder. The bill — which was also opposed by Gov. Janet Mills, Maine’s previous attorney general — was defeated in the Maine Senate that year.

Frey also hewed close to his predecessor in his stance against recognizing Wabanaki tribal sovereignty. Amid an unsuccessful legislative campaign by the tribes and their allies to amend the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which governs relations between the state and the tribes on all matters from taxation to gambling to wildlife management, Frey argued that altering the agreement could conflict with federal laws or spark additional litigation.

Frey also led the battle against the Penobscot Nation in court over stewardship of the Penobscot River. The dispute, which ended in defeat for the tribe earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court declined their appeal, was about whether the Penobscot Nation could claim its namesake river as part of its reservation and therefore regulate activity on the waterway. Frey took over the state’s argument in the decade-old Penobscot River case from Mills, who in turn took it over from former Republican Attorney General William Schneider.

Frey also opposed a 2021 bill that would have helped address the issue of forced arbitration agreements, which employers are increasingly mandating workers sign as a condition of employment. The contracts force workers who might have their wages stolen or experienced sexual harassment or racism on the job to resolve legal disputes outside of the courts, tipping the scale to favor employers.

The bill would have given workers a way out of forced arbitration by giving the attorney general the authority to essentially deputize private attorneys, granting them the power of the state — which is not bound by such agreements — to assist in pursuing corporate criminals. Despite acknowledging that violations of workers’ rights are an issue in Maine, Frey opposed expanding the private right to legal action for workers, instead arguing for more funded staff positions in his office to focus on employment violations. 

Frey did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.

Top photo: Attorney General Aaron Frey meets with a college student at his office in May. | From the Attorney Gerenal’s Office’s Facebook page.

About Dan Neumann

Avatar photoDan studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North's interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago's West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)

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