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Former CDC head Tom Frieden arrested in New York, accused of groping

Former CDC director Thomas Frieden was arrested in New York Aug. 24 after he was accused of groping a woman in October 2017. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was arrested Friday in New York after he was accused of groping a woman last year, law enforcement officials said.

Frieden, 57, turned himself in to authorities Friday morning in Brooklyn, police said. He was arraigned on Friday afternoon and released without bail. He was charged with sexual abuse in the third degree, harassment in the second degree and forcible touching.

According to court filings and law enforcement officials, Frieden is accused of grabbing a woman’s buttocks without her consent at about 11 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2017. The incident, which was reported to authorities in July, took place in an apartment building in Brooklyn, officials said.

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A complaint filed in criminal court said that Frieden is accused of “forcibly” touching a woman and subjecting her to unwanted sexual contact. The complaint states that the woman accusing Frieden, who has not been publicly identified, said he put his hand on her “buttocks … and did squeeze, without [her] consent,” which “caused [her] to become alarmed and annoyed.”

Brooklyn Criminal Court Judge Michael Yavinsky issued an order forbidding Frieden from contacting his accuser, according to Helen Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. Frieden, who waived a reading of the charges against him, was ordered to surrender his passport and is due back in court on Oct. 11. (Update: Frieden pleaded not guilty to the charges.)

An attorney believed to be representing Frieden did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. A spokeswoman for Frieden said on Friday: “This 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.”

After leaving the CDC in January 2017, Frieden became president of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative housed at a non-profit global health organization, Vital Strategies, that is trying to strengthen the public health system internationally.

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José L. Castro, president and chief executive of Vital Strategies, said in a statement that Frieden told him in April “that a non-work-related friend of his and his family of more than 30 years accused him of inappropriate physical contact.” It remained unclear Friday why Frieden told the organization about the accusation three months before police said they were notified.

Castro said he has known Frieden for nearly three decades and “there have never been any concerns or reports of inappropriate conduct” before this episode. He also said that this month, Vital Strategies launched “a thorough investigation by an external expert, which included 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.” He said, “This assessment determined there have been no incidents of workplace harassment.”

Frieden is a New York native who served as the New York City health commissioner for seven years before he went on to become the widely-respected head of the CDC during the Obama administration.

He holds medical and public health degrees from Columbia University, did an infectious disease fellowship at Yale University and worked on controlling tuberculosis in India.

After taking over the CDC, Frieden led it longer than any director since the 1970s and oversaw the agency during major disease outbreaks including the Ebola and Zika epidemics as well as the 2009 global H1N1 swine flu pandemic.

Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, addressed efforts to combat the Zika virus during a 2016 event. (Video: C-SPAN, Photo: Michel du Cille/C-SPAN)

In perhaps his most high-profile period in the job, he was the agency’s public face during the Ebola epidemic as it undertook what he called “the largest mobilization of CDC in history.” Frieden spoke at news briefings and sought to to reassure American people after Ebola was diagnosed in the United States. And he faced grilling on Capitol Hill, pressing back again lawmakers urging him to impose a travel ban by explaining that he did not believe one would work.

As New York’s health commissioner under then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), Frieden was the architect of controversial public health policies. Among them was a citywide ban on workplace smoking, including restaurants and bars. New York City also became the first place in the United States to eliminate trans fats from restaurants.

Earlier, working in the health department’s tuberculosis branch, he realized that the city’s campaign against antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis would require going out and making sure that patients finished their course of medicine. He set up a program that did so, including locking up homeless people if he had to. The tuberculosis control program he led lowered the incidence of cases that were resident to multiple drug treatments.

On Friday, he became the latest public figure accused of or charged with sexual misconduct in the last year amid a national reckoning that has also included allegations against film executives, television hosts, journalists, business mogulscomedianssports figures, authorschefs and numerous politicians, among many other people spanning industries.

Frieden’s arrest startled public health colleagues and people who have worked with him.

“I think he might have been the last person East of the Mississippi I would have ever expected these allegations of,” said William Schaffner, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, who has known Frieden for years.

Schaffner called Frieden “an extraordinary public health innovator and leader. He was a wonderful CDC director, who had a global vision. He brought the issue of antibiotic resistance very much to the forefront. He created an environment where one had to not only have good intentions, but actually have measured progress … I’m just profoundly saddened at the recent turn of events.”

This story, first published at 12:37 p.m., has been updated numerous times.


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