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.
“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.