NEW YORK — Dr. Thomas Frieden has been a giant in public health for decades. Now, sexual misconduct charges threaten not only his legacy but also his vision for leading a global effort to combat disease outbreaks and chronic diseases.

Frieden, who led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for eight years, had plotted a third act in his long career with an organization called Resolve To Save Lives. Like a CDC in miniature, Resolve was built in Frieden’s image and focused its attention on two of his banner global health issues: heart disease and epidemics. Frieden raised $225 million from wealthy donors to get Resolve off the ground in 2017, chasing the oft-stated goal of saving 100 million lives over 30 years by working with countries around the world on public health initiatives.

But his arrest Friday, on charges of forcible touching and sexual abuse, marks a stunning fall that has put his well-heeled backers in an uncomfortable position. Frieden is the face of Resolve, the voice explaining its mission, and the man with the global connections it needs to accomplish its ambitious goals. If his legal situation leads to his resignation, the organization’s future — and hundreds of millions of dollars — could be at risk.

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“We are disturbed and saddened to learn of the charges being brought against Dr. Frieden,” wrote a spokesperson for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which donated $75 million of the Facebook (FB) founder’s and his wife’s fortune to Resolve. “… We take any allegation of personal misconduct very seriously and are monitoring the situation closely.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $50 million to Resolve, said in a statement that it takes “allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously” and that it will be in touch with Frieden’s organization to learn about how it’s handling the situation. Bloomberg Philanthropies, Resolve’s biggest donor with a $100 million contribution, did not respond to a request for comment.

Vital Strategies, the New York nonprofit that houses Resolve, said in a statement that it hired an outside expert to conduct “an in-depth interview with every staff member on the Resolve to Save Lives team to determine whether there are any concerns about inappropriate behavior” and found that Frieden had done nothing wrong within the organization.

Frieden was evidently worried about what the allegations would mean for his career. His accuser, in an April blog post, said that he tried to manipulate her into staying silent by citing his position and potential to save lives around the world. The blog post did not mention Frieden by name but detailed the incident and its aftermath.

The charges against Frieden came as a shock to colleagues in the world of public health, where he is a towering figure of unmatched influence.

“This is a sad event, and it surprised me enormously,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University who has worked with Frieden for years. “We’ll have to let this play out. We don’t know what the details were, but this is not anything I would have anticipated.”

Frieden, 57, became a national figure in the early 2000s as then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s health commissioner, famously taking on the food industry by outlawing trans fats in the city. In 2009, President Obama appointed him to lead the CDC, where he distinguished himself during the Ebola outbreak of 2014 by taking early and decisive action that experts say saved lives in West Africa.

Through press conferences on sugary soda and daily briefings on Ebola, Frieden was calm and meticulous, never quite warm but seldom robotic, and always emphatic without slipping into alarmism.

“Ebola is scary; it’s a deadly disease,” he said during a briefing in 2014. “But we know how to stop it.”

Colleagues described him as remarkably driven, blazing the halls of the CDC and leaving aides challenged to keep up. He meditates twice a day in the name of “equanimity.”

“My approach is to figure out what works, get it done, and base it all on data,” Frieden told NBC News in 2014.

His work has taken him around the globe, won the respect of world leaders, and cemented his unsurpassed stature in the field of public health. His appearance Friday, cuffed and blank-faced in a Brooklyn courthouse, was a staggering departure.

Frieden, usually fast-talking and tightly wound, spoke softly before Judge Michael Yavinsky as he agreed to avoid any contact with his accuser. Stepping out into the sun, Frieden was swarmed by television cameras and local news reporters, walking silently alongside his attorney before ducking into an awaiting black SUV as they barked questions at him.

Frieden’s attorney, Laura Brevetti, said she entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf to the misdemeanor charges. In a statement Friday, a spokesman for Frieden said the “allegation does not reflect Dr. Frieden’s public or private behavior or his values over a lifetime of service to improve health around the world.”

According to police, on the night of Oct. 20, 2017, in his Brooklyn apartment, Frieden groped and squeezed the buttocks of a woman without her consent. The woman, a longtime family friend, recounted the incident in her April blog post. In it, she says that Frieden later “apologized (kind of)” and that she held off writing about it for fear of hurting any of the people involved. Upon reflection, she decided Frieden was working only to protect himself, she wrote. In July, she went to the police.

Frieden, who is married with two children, will next appear in court in October.

This story has been updated with a statement from Frieden’s lawyer that she entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

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  • Dr. Freiden is going through what he allowed me to endure at CDC. I contacted him while I was still an employee at CDC, in writing, letting him know I was being sexually harassed among other things. He never responded to my claims. The abuse and harassment got worse. It was so bad I was hospitalized twice with physical injuries. Still no help from him. I finally realized or reembered he had a boss. I wrote President Obama a letter detailing the abuse. I did hear from the White House and CDC heard from him as well.

    My experience is CDC permeated with sexual harassment. Now I understand why. Dr. Freiden isn’t a good person. He wasn’t concerned with my well being. I guess this s a what goes aroud comes around. In October 2010 I wS sexually harassed. It’s ironic that he is accused of sexual harassment in October. He allowed my life to be destroyed. I was paid monies and told to leave the agency. Thank God the judge saw through the lies and intended deception. He have documents to substantiate my statements.

  • They were not “dropped” into Atlanta. They were safely brought into special high-level isolation intensive care units designed specifically for highly contagious diseases, like hemorrhagic fevers. No transmissions happened from those or any other Ebola patients in the United States outside of the ICUs. I think the idea that there was any danger from those patients to anyone other than the healthcare professionals who volunteered to save their lives reflects a lack of understanding of the basics of infectious disease transmission.

    • Regarding Ebola in the U.S., you’re missing the point entirely. Perceived public health threats, however misguided they may be, and which result in public panic, often cause greater harm than the actual health threat. Having a competent, steady and trustworthy person who can deliver clear and straightforward messaging is a cornerstone of modern day public health.

    • I agree completely, AAAA9999X. In my opinion, the US Ebola response as handled by Dr. Frieden, CDC, and the clinical management of Americans who were brought to Atlanta for treatment, were both competent and trustworthy. I think the politicians who fanned the flames and promoted panic cannot always be “balanced out” (especially around elections) by steady and trustworthy messages. But from the Atlanta point of view, I just think that this is pure misinformation to suggest that the health of people in Atlanta was endangered by flying “foreigners” with Ebola viral disease into a highly populated center without adequate protection for uninfected people. False, false, false. No such thing happened. These “alternative facts” are part of an anti-science narrative that imperils public health.

    • ATL, wish you and Frieden (D) are required to live near such cases. Y’all deserve it.

      Others do not. And we refuse to be cowed by reckless fools like Frieden (D), when sites like Gitmo are available. And empty suits like OweBama (D) are nowhere to be found.

      Just try us, y’all will get a lesson, y’all will never forget. We have rights, too .. we will not be shunted aside by (D) ninnies like Frieden. Who obviously has self-control problems with long-time female peers.

  • Vindictive and absolutely shameful on the part of the accuser here to bring about this frivolous criminal complaint. She appears to be an artist, turned activist, and looking for any excuse to call herself a victim. Her actions however delegitimize real sexual abuse and the fundamental underpinnings of the MeToo Movement. She clearly received horrendous advice from family and friends on moving forward with this matter. A “tushie squeeze”, give me a break! I went to high school in the 1980s and a tushie squeeze would have resulted in a single one hour after school detention, if anything. Two reasonable adults should have been able to work this out, which apparently Dr. Frieden tried to do with his apology. The Talmud has two important concepts that are relevant here. The first concept “to save one life is to save the world” is relevant to Dr. Frieden through his lifetime achievements in medicine and public health, and his steady voice guiding a scared nation through Ebola. The second Talmudic concept relates to a responsibility on the part of all of us to correct the behaviors of others wherever possible, but to do it in a responsible way! Shaming someone in public is actually a serious sin, and can often be seen as far worse than the original transgression. This concept is solely owned by the accuser here, and she should regret this poor decision for the rest of her life. ‘To err is human to forgive is divine.’ We should all remember that.

  • Although I feel bad about the entire situation I really couldn’t stand the guy and believe he’s a legend in his own mind but don’t see where he’s done such a great job otherwise. He seemed hell bent on controlling the health behaviors of others. His biggest mistake was the controversial CDC opioid guidelines which appears to be another way to control the actions of others. At some point people need to take responsibility for their own actions whether that be the drugs they take or smoking or consuming biggy sodas or in this case sexual harassment.

    • “He seemed hell bent on controlling the health behaviors of others.”

      ^^^This^^^ The irony about this is that most likely he consumed enough alcohol to impair his judgement right when this allegedly happened. So while he was demonizing medication that helps ease pain and suffering, he was misusing an intoxicating substance with no medicinal purpose. Actually, that’s not irony … it’s called hypocrisy.

  • I can’t believe this even warrants an arrest. You can verbally threaten people and the police won’t do anything. Was his behavior wrong? Of course. But do we need to arrest people and ruin their entire lives for it? Speaking as a woman who has had much worse happen, I think this is insane.

    • I can’t believe this even warrants an arrest.

      You must be joking. If NYPD and D.A. did NOT act, the next headline is “NYPD, D.A. refuse to act, on alleged victim’s report.”

      Right now, in this weird environment, the only thing males should be doing is holding cute puppies and kittens, as defensive shields. That is the only thing being tolerated by the Joy Behar gang.

  • Very saddened by these allegations. It’s nothing like him. I worked with him during the dark days of the multi-drug resistant tuberculosis epidemic which claimed the lives of so many Americans, particularly New Yorkers, in the 1990s. He was among the committed public servants that got that “genie” back in the bottle. He was a great leader in New York and then in the CDC. Many lives. Many of his very data-informed actions paved the way for highly successful public health strategies being widely replicated throughout the country.

  • Under Frieden’s watch, CDC became increasingly political, almost Trumpy. For example, it attacked eCigarettes before there was any data regarding safety or benefits, calling for an outright ban. Meanwhile, data was accumulating that the devices were generally safe and greatly reduced exposure to tobacco toxins, and the UK NHS began encouraging switching to the products from tobacco. Behavior like this greatly diminished CDCs credibility with myself and most colleagues, unless reports made it into refereed journals.

    Learning that Frieden is a sexual predator in addition to being a hustler just validates my impression of him.

    • Thomas Hilton: Give me a break. “Sexual Predator?”
      First of all, the story sounds unbelievable. Second, even if it were true, we have no details. For example, if Dr. Frieden had a drink and for some reason was more affected than at other times and got frisky, this does not make him a sexual predator. Perhaps it was a mere clumsy advance.

      If you want to live in a world where all human behavior becomes suspect and a woman’s claim can destroy a man’s life without evidence, I suggest you think about this–it can happen to you for doing nothing at all.
      I do not agree with the heavy hand of the CDC under Frieden’s leadership. Nevertheless, this is something entirely different. Shame on you for “just believing” the woman.

  • This kind of behavior was not only tolerated it was encouraged, by the silence of his peers. Grabbing women’s buttocks and other aggressive sexual behavior was fairly normal in a lot of circles. Like so many others the power went to Freiden’s head. The most disturbing thing about the Metoo movement, is how this behavior was tolerated for so long, and in so many fields.
    The denial is still palpable, and has not caused much of a reevaluation. In Medicine gender bias and misogyny are well documented, yet there is still abject denial. What we have here is another example of the Institutional Gas Lighting, where all of this was not only ignored, it is still being limited to individual acts. This behavior is Systemic, and healthcare workers have tolerated it, ignored it and normalized it.

  • Was never impressed with him. When he and OweBama (D) let the overseas Zika patients fly into Atlanta — it was over, for moi. Typical (D) attitude — care more about non-Americans than Americans.

    • I think this article is not balanced as it seems to highlight how much is lost to global public health because of the allegations against Tom Frieden. What about the woman involved? and probably many other women who have had their careers derailed because of Tom Frieden? I would have liked to see more balanced journalism that emphasises the impact on the women- rather the impact to Tom Frieden (who has not denied the charges).

    • 1) They were Ebola patients.
      2) All 4 of those patients treated at Emory were American.

      You’re embarrassing yourself.

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