The ugly truth behind Maine’s prettiest publications
by Chris Busby
“Don’t call me at work again / No, no, the boss still hates me / I’m just tired and I don’t love you anymore / And there’s a restaurant we should check out / where the other nightmare people like to go / I mean nice people — baby, wait, I didn’t mean to say nightmare.”
— They Might Be Giants, “They’ll Need a Crane”
“It’s one of those ‘hindsight is 20/20’ deals,” said Jessie Lacey, looking back on the four years she spent designing magazines for Kevin Thomas and Susan Grisanti, the publisher and editor-in-chief, respectively, of Maine Home + Design and other posh periodicals. “There were signs, but I didn’t see them for what they were because I was pretty enamored with Kevin and Susan, and working in this glamorous — on the outside — job, and going to parties.”
This was during the mid-to-late 2000s, when Lacey was in her mid-20s. She grew up in Brownville Junction, a little village “in the sticks” north of Bangor, and had done some design work for Bangor Metro magazine after graduating from the University of Maine with an art degree. She shared a three-bedroom apartment on Munjoy Hill with two housemates, and hadn’t known a soul in Portland before she moved here to take her first big-city job.
Things “did start to get weird” for Lacey around 2009, when Thomas and Grisanti took control of a publication called Port City Life and turned it into a magazine named Maine. The growing company was still fairly small, but turnover was high. People were abruptly quitting, or getting fired, with some regularity. The office politics were of a sort that people would later call “Trumpian,” polluted with paranoia, menace and lechery.
Both Thomas and Grisanti would routinely make sexually charged comments about their employees’ bodies and appearance, and occasionally crossed the line into unwelcome physical contact. “Kevin would comment about my boobs a lot,” Lacey said, and would do so to her and to her male colleagues, behind her back. According to Lacey, she later learned that when associate editor Josh Bodwell told Thomas he would prefer, simply for the sake of quiet, to have his own office rather than share one with her, “Kevin told him he should feel lucky that he gets to stare at my breasts all day.” One day Grisanti walked into that office and sat, unbidden, on Bodwell’s lap. “He was visibly uncomfortable,” Lacey said. Grisanti “got up and left and kind of laughed about it,” she recalled. (Grisanti and Bodwell both declined to provide comment for this article.)
To Thomas and Grisanti, employees were either totally committed to the team or they were the enemy. “There was a lot of them working people off each other, getting other people to talk about others and not trust anyone,” Lacey said of her two bosses. “I certainly didn’t trust anyone there. … But I was with friends. I felt like I was on Kevin and Susan’s good side, so nothing really affected me until I basically turned him down for sex, and it all changed.”
It was an evening in March of 2010. Thomas, Grisanti and Lacey had dinner together at Walter’s, a fancy restaurant in the Old Port. When Grisanti left the table to use the ladies room, Thomas turned to Lacey and confided something that she and her officemates had theretofore only suspected. “‘Jessie,’” he said, “‘I’m in love with her.’”
“Wow,” Lacey thought. “That’s a mess.” She said both Grisanti and Thomas were going through divorces at the time. It’s believed that they met through the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation (a fancy way to say PTA). There both had school-age kids.
After Walter’s, the trio went to Top of the East, a classy lounge atop the Eastland Park Hotel, for more drinks. When Grisanti went home, Lacey stayed to have another round with Thomas. “That’s when he put his hand on my thigh and was complimenting me, and I saw my job pass in front of my eyes,” Lacey said. “I’m going to get fired,” she thought. “Like, this is so bad, and I have no control over it, because it was his actions.”
Lacey told Thomas she had to go home, that her fiancé was waiting for her. She said Thomas offered to drive her there, even though she lived across the street from the hotel at that time, and she declined the ride. “Then he asked to come back to my place,” she said. She shot that idea down, too, but he walked with her as they left the lounge and descended to the lobby. When they were nearly at the end of the long hallway leading to Congress Square Park, Thomas “kind of pressed me up against the wall and kissed me,” said Lacey.
“I did like this football move, like duck, because his arms were up against the wall, and I ducked under his arms,” she continued. “I was like, ‘I’ve gotta go. Bye.’ I just rushed out the door and ran home.”
Awful as that encounter was, the real torment had only just begun.
“For a couple weeks, he didn’t talk to me at all in the office — completely avoided me,” Lacey said of her employer. “I was having panic attacks in the bathroom. I only cared about keeping my job because I was not making much money. I live paycheck to paycheck. And I was young, too, so I wasn’t thinking I could sue him, or I have any legal protection. It’s just like, ‘Shit, I’m going to lose my job.’”
It felt as though her co-workers were also avoiding her, Lacey said. “It’s like everybody knew that I was marked, and it was out of fear that they didn’t really talk to me.” She’d slipped from the “good side” to the “bad side” — there was no in-between — and employees on the bad side didn’t last long.
Lacey had seen it happen before, to a more experienced graphic designer, named Jennifer Muller, who allegedly left the company in a rage (Lacey said Muller ripped up her severance check in front of Thomas the day she departed; Muller and Thomas declined to provide comment for this story). Muller had the confidence and courage to question Thomas, and “he did not like any questioning of anything,” Lacey said, “so it was obvious that [Muller] was on her way out. … She was also ostracized. I saw that in action, which was scary when, the second time it happened, it was to me.”
After weeks of the silent treatment, Thomas strolled into Lacey’s office one day and casually said, “‘Water under the bridge, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah,’ relieved,” Lacey said. “Water under the bridge. Cool.”
Not long after that, Thomas took her office away. “He put my desk out in kind of like the hallway area, ’cause he said he needed the office,” said Lacey. For the next two months or so, Lacey worked at her desk in that passageway, “staring at my empty office.”
The glamour was quickly wearing thin — for Lacey, at least. “I was making thirty-six thousand a year, and probably working sixty to eighty hours a week,” she said. At one point during this period, Thomas called her into his office and said he and Grisanti needed to lower her pay. “I was just like, ‘You can’t do that. I’m barely paying bills.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, if we don’t lower your pay then we have to lower everyone else’s and you’ll be the reason why everyone else has their pay lowered.’ I had to make a choice. I was just like, ‘Lower my pay, then.’”
Despite these supposedly lean times for the company, there was money for certain extravagances, like a custom-made conference table. “That was a nice conference table,” said Lacey, “but it was forty thousand dollars, and I remember being like, ‘That is more than I make.’ It was so fucking frustrating. … That’s why I figured maybe they pay so badly, because they don’t understand what things cost.”
Then came the demotion, from art director of Maine Home to graphic designer for The Brand Company — the in-house marketing firm of Thomas and Grisanti’s local media empire, now known as the Maine Media Collective (MMC). “They lowered my pay, knocked back the hours that I worked so I didn’t qualify for insurance anymore,” said Lacey. “I was going through a cervical cancer scare at the time, so I was getting treatment for that, and my co-workers were not talking to me, either. It was horrific. It was awful.”
Lacey resigned shortly before Thanksgiving of 2010. “It was a forced resignation,” she said. “I probably would have kept on going until I died or something. I think that they were trying to get me to quit and I think they underestimated the amount of self-esteem I didn’t have,” she said with a laugh.
“I was offered a severance at, of course, the newly lowered pay, so it was like twelve hundred dollars,” Lacey recalled. “I just was like: I want to tear this up, but I literally have to pay rent.” They also gave her a legal document to review and sign on the spot. She believes it was a non-compete agreement intended to prevent her from working at any similar businesses in the area.
“I was so emotional, I barely read it through my tears,” she said. “When I left Maine Home + Design, my self-esteem was in the dump. … I truly believed that I was replaceable, that I wouldn’t be able to find a job.”
Within two weeks, Lacey was hired by a Portland design firm at a salary roughly double what Thomas and Grisanti had been paying. “So it’s like, ‘OK, cool, maybe I’m not completely worthless,’” Lacey said, “but it really took a lot.”
It’s taken a lot more effort, and much more time, for Lacey to feel comfortable speaking out about what happened to her — seven years, actually. And even then, she said, “I still felt like it would ruin me.”
Maine Media Collective has since expanded to include five magazines (including Old Port and, recently, Ageless Maine, a publication for old people), an art gallery and online art marketplace (Art Collector Maine), a radio show/podcast (Love Maine Radio), a TED Talk knockoff (the Maine Live speaker series), annual events like the Kennebunkport Festival and Boothbay Harbor Food + Wine Festival, and guidebooks including Eat Maine. The privately owned company claims to have annual revenues totaling about $6 million.
Along with the money comes power — or the perception of power, which can be just as effective as the real thing when the goal is to keep would-be whistleblowers quiet. “That’s the problem with this story,” said another former MMC employee. The company “has tentacles so far-reaching.”
Maine Media Collective has business relationships with many of the biggest companies and institutions in the state (from Bank of America to the Portland Museum of Art) and social relationships with the people who run those entities — a fact flaunted in countless photographs, published in its magazines and online, showing MMC staffers hobnobbing with the bourgeoisie. Former employees fear that Thomas can leverage those connections to damage their careers if they cross him. There’s no evidence that he’s ever done so, but the paranoid malevolence with which he’s run his company has convinced them that he’s willing and able to do that. If you’re a writer, designer, photographer, salesperson or marketing professional in Maine whose livelihood depends on the good graces of the state’s moneyed class, then you poke the spider in the center of that web at your peril.
In the years since she left MMC, Lacey said she’s felt like Thomas still “had a lot of power over me. … I convinced myself that he had [that power], and it took awhile to realize that he doesn’t. None of my friends work for him anymore, none of my work overlaps anything [that MMC does]. I feel like a lot of other women are not in that position, unfortunately.”
The final straw for Lacey was lain when MMC announced the launch of Moxie Maine last fall. The new magazine “shares the empowering stories of Maine women,” according to its website. “Honestly, that was when I got angry,” Lacey told me. “Empowering women? … I wanted to know: Would he publish a story about his sexual harassment in his magazine meant to empower women?” [Full disclosure: Lacey writes a freelance column about cocktails for Maine Women Magazine, a free, glossy monthly owned by an MMC competitor; and she recently became creative director for Incomer, a free quarterly magazine about immigrant Mainers that was launched this spring by new publisher Layla Kargar.]
The Bollard contacted over 30 current and former MMC staff members this spring to inquire about their experience with the company. Roughly a third of them did not respond. Three former employees said they had a positive experience working for Thomas and Grisanti, but none of those three were willing to speak on the record. Over half the people I contacted — men and women, older and younger, short- and longer-term employees who were there between 2006 and last year — shared accounts that matched or corroborated Lacey’s description of a hostile work environment, a toxic company culture rife with sexual harassment, anger and anxiety that bled into their personal lives and haunts many of them to this day.
These sources, most of whom also spoke off-record, described a workplace where those who commit domestic violence or routinely engage in sexual harassment are rewarded with promotions, while those who express concern about that behavior are dismissed. And they said Thomas and Grisanti (whose romantic and business relationships have since disintegrated in acrimony) routinely crossed professional boundaries in ways that gave others license to do the same.
Maine magazine is unlikely to tell the true stories of its workers. “We cover Maine in a positive light,” reads a manifesto of sorts printed after the masthead. “We intentionally leave the negativity and snark to other media outlets. There is a place for everything, and we honor that. But that place is not here.”
That place is here.
The Nightmare People
“This is the whole problem with that place,” said a source I’ll call Employee A, who worked for Thomas and Grisanti many years ago. “When I left there, I was still optimistic enough to think, This is not a sustainable way to operate, other people will not allow this, this person [Thomas] will get their comeuppance. … It’s taken a long time to feel like it’s even generally known that there are some character problems there.”
It’s a particularly “Portland problem,” this source said, in that the city is “so small that everyone has personal reasons for not taking a stand, so bad behavior is allowed to continue.”
Former insiders estimate that upwards of 100 people have left full- or part-time staff positions at MMC (not counting freelancers) in the past dozen years — “it’s literally a revolving door,” one remarked — but it’s still necessary, in most cases, to keep sources’ gender, job type, and specific years of employment undisclosed in order to maintain their anonymity. Plus, the paranoia is deep, and it can be traumatic. “Even picking up the phone to call you, these physical, bodily sensations of anxiety came back,” Employee A said. “It can have a lasting effect. It continued to bleed into other areas of your life even as you get out of it.”
Like Lacey and many others, Employee A went from being excited to be part of this hip, glitzy company, to realizing “something weird was going on. I felt like Kevin and Susan hate the people who are making all this happen for them,” Employee A said.
Thomas and Grisanti had no experience publishing or editing magazines when they started building this business. Originally from Aroostook County, Thomas climbed the corporate ladder at a food-distribution company in Massachusetts, Springfield Foodservice, and when that company was sold to Performance Food Group, in 2001, he got a lucrative severance package that he used, in part, to start his next venture: the home-building company Thomas & Lord, in Kennebunk. According to several sources, he’d advertised Thomas & Lord in an upstart Maine architectural publication that soon morphed into Maine Home + Design. Grisanti was from Los Angeles and had some experience writing for magazines, but her primary skill seemed to be schmoozing with rich people. According to Employee A and others, one of Grisanti’s first jobs was as an assistant to Tori Spelling, the infamously bratty and catty Hollywood socialite. “The moment I heard that, it was like everything made sense,” Employee A said.
So Thomas and Grisanti needed a talented, experienced staff to make the magazines for them, but the pair had a “deranged paranoia” that these employees knew their publisher and editor-in-chief were, as Employee A put it, “hacks.” They feared their shortcomings would be exposed, the source said — thus their resentment and poor treatment of workers, like Muller, who actually knew the craft and were willing to question what they believed were some bad decisions.
“To me, there were a lot of warning signs,” Employee A said. “A lot of boundaries that should have been there between personnel and the people in power just were not there. There was too much sexuality, sexual talk brought into the workplace. Wanting to be friends with employees, going out drinking with them. … When you realize some people are boundary tramplers, that behavior doesn’t just stop. Especially with younger people … like interns. It gave me a foreboding feeling that shit was about to go wrong.”
Perhaps inevitably, lines were crossed. The ups and downs of Thomas and Grisanti’s romantic relationship often caused a lot of extra drama and stress in an already tense workplace. According to multiple sources, Grisanti went on to have affairs with at least two younger men who worked at or for her magazines, and those trysts fueled further tension between her and Thomas. Grisanti left the company in November of 2016. She and Thomas were not on speaking terms prior to her departure, according to an informed source, and apparently do not communicate at all these days. (Thomas claimed last month that he did not have any contact information for Grisanti, who has since started a development and consulting firm in town called Ten Ten Holdings. On the firm’s homepage, she’s pictured sitting on a desk, gazing into the camera with her striking, crazy blue eyes. Behind her are two wall hangings: a painting or print of an armless, headless, naked female figure, and a framed poster that reads, in huge letters, “WORK HARD & BE NICE TO PEOPLE.”)
“It was a complete soap opera,” said Employee B, who worked at MMC more recently than A did, and in a different capacity. Actually, make that a soap opera crossed with a horror movie. “I lived in fear every day I worked there and I hated every minute of it,” B said. “I feel Kevin is a complete sociopath. I still feel like I have PTSD from this. It was a very manipulative and brainwashing environment.”
Employee B said Thomas had two responses whenever someone brought even a minor problem to his attention: “His eyes go black and he gets quiet and evil, or he’ll explode and yell.”
Thomas’ company has “this reputation as a great, cool, hip place to be, right?” said Employee C, and Thomas himself “always had this front where he was very cool and collected. … But he fucking grinds you down to nothing. He’s really a brutal guy to work for. [He’s] passive aggressive, but really brutal behind closed doors to pretty much everybody.”
“It was the most fucked-up psychic warfare I’d ever seen,” said Employee D. “If you’re not fully committed, they’ll kick you to the curb or make you uncomfortable until you quit. … They fuck with you until you crumble.”
“I found it to be an excruciating environment to work in,” said Employee E. This employee was not a direct target of sexual harassment, but witnessed such harassment in the office on a regular basis. “The young women in the office were always, I think, a little on edge, a little unsure of what was coming next,” E said. “There was a type that they hired: kind of insecure, beautiful, skittish young women.”
“Susan was kind of universally inappropriate, but I think Kevin was a little more strategic,” according to E. Employee A saw something similar. Thomas and Grisanti “both have some kind of instinct about who has boundaries set for them and who they could push. … I feel like they took advantage of people who were in certain times of their lives: going through turmoil or loneliness, or also just not old enough to know better.”
“I think Jessie [Lacey] was a really good example of that,” said E. “I think she had a hard time and I think that she was manipulated by Kevin and Susan when she could have been mentored. She’s a really bright young woman, but she’s a little fragile. They could have done her a real service and they just kept her on edge, because then it was very easy to get her kind of under their thumbs.”
“I’m outgoing. I’m kinda naturally confident,” said Employee F. While at MMC, “I ended up sharing a lot of great ideas and speaking up and just kind of being myself, and I felt like that was so crushed on so many different levels … It took me about a year, a year and a half, in my new [job] to kind of trust my voice again and believe in myself a little bit. They take people and they kind of crush ’em.”
“What I saw was people were scared,” F said. “Who wants to go to work and be afraid all day, every day? That’s how it felt, constantly. I knew people there getting prescriptions for anti-anxiety medicine just to be able to show up to work … because of this energy and these fear tactics and this manipulation.
“A lot of it was behind the scenes,” F continued. “Even within that office, there was this sense or this perception that everything was dandy. And there were a few people in there that were completely left alone. … If I’m really looking at it and being honest, too, I think that [Thomas] really targets young, attractive women. I never experienced any sexual harassment, but if I look at who he treated poorly, it was young women, new grads from college, somewhere between 22 to 28, 30. Everyone else he kind of left alone. The men, he left alone. The older women, he left alone.”
Like Lacey, Employee F was lured into Thomas’ orbit by the glittering lifestyle he and his employees appeared to lead in the photos and features in the magazines. “I thought this is my dream job, right?” F said. “I like Portland, it looks good, it’s sexy, the events are cool, you’re included in a lot of stuff. … They reel you in a bit, too” — offering perks like the opportunity to write a “48 Hours” travel feature. “‘We want to photograph you and have you write the editor’s note,’” they’ll say, “and that feels good when you’re new and you don’t know enough. But eventually it stops feeling good, and you start seeing the writing on the wall here. Like, Hey, for some reason I’ve got a target on my back. I’m not sure why, but I did, and it was very, very clear.”
After “six months of just harassment on a daily basis, I finally just said, ‘I’m gonna look for another job,’ and I did,” F said. Thomas didn’t make it easy to leave. “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life,” he said, according to F. “You’re letting us down. This is gonna be one of your biggest regrets.”
“It was like one of the hardest decisions I made,” said F. “And I was lucky: I had a job lined up. I’ve known people that have quit that company, because they can’t take it anymore, with nothin’ — moved back in with their parents, picked up waitressing jobs, just to get out of the toxicity.”
When F left, there was a staff meeting at MMC in which Thomas told those assembled that F “is no longer a friend of this magazine, [F] is a conniving bitch,” according to friends of F who still worked there. “Then he pulled each of my friends into his office and said, ‘Do you have a problem with how I spoke about [F]? If you do, there’s no place for you here.’”
Asked to elaborate on how Thomas fostered a “toxic” atmosphere in the office, F said, “It was belittling language. It was a lot of just shame … creating self doubt no matter what you did — good, bad or indifferent — and fear and shame that you would lose your job, that you wouldn’t get a bonus, that you wouldn’t be invited to things.”
The toxicity spread outside the office and well beyond office hours. “I felt like I was harassed all weekend long, most weekends,” F said. “I’d be trying to enjoy the two days per week that I wasn’t under this psychological warfare and … I’d get a hundred e-mails.”
All from Thomas? I asked F. All weekend?
“Yeah, on a Sunday morning,” F said. “I’d be crying. I’d be so stressed out, afraid to go to work on Monday.
“These things, they sound almost silly if you take ’em out of context,” F continued. “But you add ’em all together and you take a young woman who’s newly out of college and trying to find her footing, what it does is it just wipes somebody’s self confidence and ability to be sure of themselves. And I think that’s the biggest disservice.”
F doesn’t expect that speaking out will hurt Thomas in any way. F decided to speak out to warn prospective MMC employees, especially young women, what really happens inside his company. “If you’re gonna take a job at Maine Media Collective, you should just know, so that you can go in and know it’s not gonna be about you,” F said. “It’s gonna end the same — I have no doubt. But maybe you can go in with your eyes open. ’Cause I had no idea.”
Jeffrey and Jack
People respond to stress in different ways. Some drink, some jog. Some get sad, some get angry. Some go home and kick the dog. Or worse.
According to court records, including police and victim statements, on the evening of July 30, 2013, Jeffrey Carmine D’Amico, an advertising representative for MMC’s magazines, came home in a bad mood “about something that had occurred at work.” The girlfriend he lived with, who I’ll call Jane, had given birth to his baby daughter about a year before. An argument ensued, D’Amico left with the baby, the police were called, and D’Amico was arrested later that night.
D’Amico declined to comment for this article, but his attorney, Stephen Schwartz, provided a statement that addressed what took place that night. “Jeffrey D’Amico made a mistake almost five years ago,” it reads. “While he did not physically injure anybody, he accepted responsibility for what he did do — he used threatening words against his partner and baby, and threw a mug against the wall in anger. Those actions rightfully caused his partner concern, and she called the police. Jeffrey pled guilty to domestic violence terrorizing, assault and threatening.”
Schwartz also included a signed statement from Jane, dated April 20, 2018, in which she wrote: “Our family has been through a lot of emotional upheaval and Jeff has worked very hard to overcome the personal issues that led to his past behavior. … Even though we are not together, we are putting our daughter first and Jeff is a responsible, respectful father.” The statement concluded: “Jeffrey’s employer was tremendously supportive to our family in helping us through a difficult time. I am grateful for their assistance in our family’s healing.”
In deference to the victim’s concern that publishing details about the incident contained in public documents could harm her family, The Bollard will not share those details here. It must be said, however, that the details are deeply disturbing and should have caused D’Amico’s employer, Thomas, to seriously assess whether someone of D’Amico’s temperament, character and mental state should continue to represent the company to advertisers and attendees of MMC events. Were those details to become public knowledge, it’s inconceivable that D’Amico could continue to successfully perform his job for such a public-facing company.
The July 30, 2013 incident was not an isolated event. According to statements Jane made at the time, D’Amico had been mentally and physically abusive to her for most their three-year relationship, and she alleged that he also physically assaulted her father on several occasions. Furthermore, the threats and psychological abuse did not end that night. In early 2015, court records detail another series of very troubling actions by D’Amico against Jane which resulted, in May of 2015, in D’Amico pleading guilty to charges of violating a protection from abuse order. He was sentenced to 364 days in jail, with all but 10 suspended, and was compelled to comply with a host of other conditions, including mandatory psychiatric counseling and the destruction of any explicit images of Jane in his possession.
It’s unclear how or even if Thomas assessed D’Amico’s employment status after these arrests and guilty pleas. That’s one of numerous questions I sent to Thomas via e-mail, but as previously noted, he did not respond.
We do know, via an MMC press release from May of last year, that D’Amico was promoted from advertising account manager to director of sales, one of the top five positions in the company.
“It is regrettable that these personal matters — which have nothing to do with his work or how Jeffrey conducts himself at work — are being written about now,” Schwartz wrote in his letter to The Bollard. That said, it’s notable that Jane’s account of D’Amico’s behavior mirrors, in many respects, his traumatized co-workers’ accounts of Thomas’ behavior. Like his boss, D’Amico is said to have two sides: one warm and sociable, the other monstrous. Both have used their control of the weaker party’s financial situation to enforce compliance. And both have been known to barrage people with texts or e-mail messages in an effort to cajole or harass them.
Employee B likened working for MMC to “being in an abusive relationship.” After B left the company, B was “terrified” that Thomas would “mess with my name” and damage B’s reputation. “It was hard to be a resident of Portland,” B said, comparing Thomas to “a bad boyfriend you don’t want to run into.”
Most of the sources contacted for this article were unfamiliar with the details of D’Amico’s criminal acts. Several said that Thomas and Grisanti bailed D’Amico out of jail on more than one occasion and covered for him during his periods of incarceration by being less than truthful about his circumstances and whereabouts in response to inquiries. The general nature of D’Amico’s crimes did eventually come to many staff members’ attention, and some employees subsequently expressed concern about D’Amico to his bosses, sources said, but apparently no formal action was taken in response to those concerns.
My written questions to Thomas about the handling of D’Amico’s situation and the allegedly “toxic” work environment at MMC, among other matters, was also e-mailed to Andrea King, MMC’s publisher and CEO. King, who also owns a lingerie shop in the Old Port, joined the company in September of 2016, a couple months before Grisanti split, as chief operating officer and associate publisher, under Thomas. Last fall, around the same time Lacey began speaking out about her alleged sexual assault, Thomas disappeared from the pages of his magazines — and his name was removed from the masthead — with no explanation given to readers accustomed to seeing his crooked grin in nearly every issue. (Some sources said Thomas has been considering stepping back from his company for over a year; in any case, he’s still in the office and conducting business much like he always has, according to multiple sources.)
King responded to the inquiries via e-mail with a short statement: “Maine Media Collective understands that a positive corporate culture is essential to the success of our business and to the well-being of our employees. As CEO, I am committed to providing my team with a safe, respectful, and progressive work environment.”
In 2011, Jack Leonardi, a private-investment manager from Massachusetts who lived in a Thomas & Lord–built home in Kennebunkport, teamed up with Thomas and Grisanti to launch Art Collector Maine (ACM). The pay-to-play scheme — in which artists paid ACM upwards of $3,600 per year to promote their work in the pages of MMC magazines, on a website, and on the walls of its galleries — caused controversy in 2014, not long after it opened the Portland Art Gallery, on Middle Street. Some artists objected to the practice of charging creators to sell their work (in addition to taking half the money from sales), and some gallery owners pulled their ads from MMC’s magazines in protest, because the media company was now also a competitor.
But that appears to have been the least of Leonardi’s sins.
Meet Employee G, a former manager of the Portland Art Gallery. Employee G was not comfortable disclosing her name in this article, but was willing to identify her job, gender and period of employment, in part because Thomas and Leonardi are, by now, aware that she has filed a discrimination complaint against their company with the Maine Human Rights Commission.
In her complaint, G said she documents three specific instances of sexual assault by Leonardi at work in 2014 and 2015 — three times when “I had to basically push this guy off me,” she said. The incidents included Leonardi “attempting to coerce me into going into the bathroom for a couple minutes” and, on another occasion, “attempting to kiss me.”
“I was extremely uncomfortable,” said G. “This is my boss. What do I do? … How do you tell your boss what you would say to any other guy?”
The sexual harassment happened pretty much from the start, when G began working for ACM in 2013. “There were definitely sexually inappropriate comments. It was constantly inappropriate,” G said. But Leonardi would “do it strategically … it wasn’t completely obvious.”
His conduct really “started crossing the line in 2014,” G said. “When the advances were not welcome and not returned, things got worse.” At least two of the unwelcome advances took place at the gallery when Leonardi was there at night, drinking wine with the employees. When he wasn’t being amorous, the former hedge-fund financier was being an asshole: “There’d be swearing, there’d be fits,” G said. “He’d get angry with people very easily. He would fly off the handle pretty easily. … He’s very unprofessional. He’s an intimidator. He would make clients and his employees feel intimidated.”
One of G’s colleagues, Employee H, witnessed the same unprofessional behavior, as did a third, Employee I. The three of them were nervous around Leonardi, but considered Thomas even more terrifying and unapproachable. “‘Well, if you think I’m bad, you have no idea how Kevin is,’” Leonardi told G numerous times.
“I never went to Kevin” with concerns about Leonardi, “because I didn’t feel it was a safe thing to do,” said G. “I didn’t think he would genuinely care what Jack was doing. And I didn’t know about Kevin’s behavior until after I left. Now I’m relieved I never went to him.”
Employee H did express concerns about Leonardi to Thomas and Grisanti, but they blew it off. “They basically acted like they cared about what was going on and then would throw it under the rug,” said G. “Jack’s their priority. He’s of more importance than any gallery [employee].”
In fact, things did eventually change at the gallery — Leonardi was given a larger role in the company, as its chief financial officer, so he spent more time across the street at the MMC office. Employee G said Leonardi used the fact he wouldn’t be at the gallery as often as an inducement to convince her not to quit “after doing some pretty inappropriate things.”
And G wanted to stay. “I liked the job, I liked the artists. I wanted the gallery to grow [and] to get the gallery to a reputable place,” she said. Besides, there weren’t a lot of other galleries in Maine looking for managers, and there was no human-resources person at MMC to complain to, so she felt “there were really no options.”
Employee G said she spent a lot of time fielding phone calls and messages from angry artists who hadn’t been paid, whose checks were short, and whose artwork was lost by ACM, which often loaned works to potential buyers but was not always fastidious about keeping track of what was where. Artists were also upset that ACM reduced the benefits of membership when the Portland gallery began mounting more solo exhibitions than group shows and running ads in the magazines that only included those few featured artists. The membership contract itself was not changed to reflect this, G said.
“They don’t respect the artists,” G said of Leonardi and another boss of hers at ACM, “and I was constantly defending artists, constantly sticking up for artists, constantly trying to be an advocate for these artists, not just a business, and they didn’t care.” G conceded that this created tension at work. “I stopped being nice about it,” she said. “I said, ‘You guys have to do your jobs. [You’re] not calling people, not paying people.’ And they didn’t like that. They didn’t like that I wasn’t taking their side.”
So they fired her.
“The day they terminated me, they presented me with a contract that basically stripped me of my rights to pursue anything legal,” said G, whose experience echoes that of several other sources who were fired by MMC. “They said, ‘If you don’t sign this, we’re not going to give you your severance or unemployment.’”
G later learned that, under Maine law, her employer could try to challenge her eligibility for unemployment benefits, but did not have authority to unilaterally deny them upon her termination or at any time afterward. G signed the document — which included a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) intended to prevent her from going public with her concerns — and found a lawyer that afternoon. On the lawyer’s advice, she sent a letter to MMC rescinding her signature on the NDA on the basis that it was made “under duress,” and sent back the severance check, even though the money would have really helped at the time, she said.
Leonardi initially seemed willing to be interviewed for this story, but ultimately declined. “After making a few inquiries I can now get a sense as to why you were looking to speak with me,” he wrote in an e-mail received shortly before our deadline. “While I do not know the specifics, I believe the nature of the statements that are being made about me are wildly inaccurate. Also, some of the individuals that I believe are providing information to you have dubious track records. I hope checking that is important to you.”
Before working for ACM, Employee G had a part-time job at Greenhut Galleries (one of the art businesses that pulled its ads due to ACM’s practices) and also worked at Zapoteca, the high-end Mexican restaurant in Portland, since closed, whose owners have fallen into ignominy amid allegations of financial misdeeds. G met D’Amico at Zapoteca (the owners were advertisers, and he patronized the place frequently) and she said he connected her with Leonardi to get the ACM job.
I asked Employee G what she thought of D’Amico. “My take on Jeffrey is I don’t think he’s a horrible person at the core,” she said. “I think he comes from a harder background, a harder place in life. … I think he’s done what he can to make a life for himself. I think the magazine is the only thing that gives him some sense of importance. That guy drinks the Kool-Aid. He will go above and beyond what is needed. I don’t think he’s inherently a bad person.
“But Kevin and Jack,” G added, “are inherently bad people. They’ve had the opportunity to make some things right, and they haven’t.”
Then I asked G what had been my final question for many of the sources in this article: How do Thomas and his cohort do it? How do they continue to get away with blatantly unethical behavior? Her answer echoed most of the others’.
“They put on a great front,” G said. “They act like they care about Maine, they act like they care about their employees, but at the end of the day it’s just a front. They want to look good, they want to be this authority of Maine, and they’re not. They’re not even close to getting what real Maine is.”