Tensions as Lawmakers Launch Special Investigation of Murphy Hiring Practices

John Reitmeyer | November 9, 2018 | Politics
Woman at center of sexual-assault allegation expected to testify early next month. Murphy official criticizes ‘leak’ of information

A select legislative committee investigated aspects of a rape allegation made against a former member of the Murphy administration.
The woman who has accused a former Murphy administration official of sexually assaulting her during last year’s campaign is expected to testify early next month before a special legislative committee that is now reviewing state employment practices.

The scheduling of that hearing for December 4 was the biggest development to come out of the committee’s first meeting in Trenton yesterday.

Despite the serious subject matter, the legislative review of the state’s hiring policies is also shaping up to be the latest source of political tension between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat.

Dozens of women who support the governor have already been urging lawmakers not to politicize the select-committee investigation. And during yesterday’s hearing, the leaders of the bipartisan, bicameral panel took pains to describe the confidentiality measures that they will be following and said they view their overall role strictly as a policy-based, fact-finding mission.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, the committee’s co-chair alongside Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, went out of her way to make it clear that they were not embarking on a witch hunt.

“This is a special committee with — and I know we all know — weighty responsibilities that we all take very seriously,” Weinberg said.

Former campaign official has denied the allegations

The allegations of sexual assault involving members of the Murphy administration were first aired publicly in a story that was published by The Wall Street Journal several weeks ago. Katie Brennan, a former Murphy campaign volunteer who now serves as the chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, graphically described a sexual assault that she said took place in her apartment in April 2017 following a gathering of campaign staffers at a Jersey City bar.

In the story, Brennan leveled the allegations against former campaign official Al Alvarez, who she said drove her home following the gathering. Alvarez, who went on to be hired by the Murphy administration as chief of staff of the Schools Development Authority, has through a lawyer denied any wrongdoing. He stepped down in early October after the reporter who wrote the story contacted him for comment on Brennan’s allegations.

Brennan reportedly contacted Jersey City police shortly after the alleged incident, but the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office chose not to pursue the case. She also contacted the Murphy administration’s transition team after the election and a high-ranking member of the Murphy administration in March. And in June she wrote to the governor and his wife, Tammy. Brennan did not mention the assault but asked to speak to them about a sensitive matter, the newspaper story said.

Credit: NJTV News
Peter Verniero was in charge of the review.
After Brennan’s allegations became public last month, Murphy announced that he was hiring former state Attorney General Peter Verniero to conduct a systemic review of his administration’s overall hiring and vetting processes. Murphy has maintained that he only found out recently about the sexual-assault allegation and believes that his staff members handled the matter appropriately once they were notified.

More than one inquiry

But several lawmakers from both parties called for a separate, legislative inquiry after concerns were raised about the effectiveness of the state’s current policies related to accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The 15-member oversight panel was created in late October following votes in both houses of the Legislature.

The panel has hired attorneys Michael Critchley and Joseph A. Hayden to serve as counsel and Weinberg (D-Bergen) said during yesterday’s meeting that they have asked Brennan to testify on December 4. Initial indications are that she will appear, Weinberg said.

The lawyers have also sent memos to several individuals requesting that documents be retained to assist the inquiry. Citing a need for confidentiality, Weinberg said committee members would be using a secure, online format to review documents.

“They will be dealing with sensitive, personal issues, we think, so we are all going to be respectful of that,” she said.

After the hearing, Weinberg told reporters who asked for the list of those who have been called on to preserve documents that it would be distributed, and they were later identified as: Brennan; Alvarez; Jose Lozano, who served as executive director of Murphy’s transition team; Matt Platkin, Murphy’s chief counsel; Peter Cammarano, Murphy’s chief of staff; Parimal Garg, Murphy’s deputy chief counsel; Lynn Haynes, Justin Braz, and Joseph Kelly, who all serve as deputy chiefs of staff to Murphy; Adam Alonso, a former deputy chief of staff; and Derrick Green, a senior Murphy adviser who works for the Department of State.

Asked to retain documents

Document-retention requests were also sent to the governor’s office and transition team.

Weinberg was asked to address the political questions that have been raised by some Murphy supporters, including a group of 60 women who have expressed concerns about the inquiry becoming politicized. The governor and lawmakers have not always seen eye to eye this year and threatened a government shutdown over the summer before reaching agreement on a new state budget. Asked if the legislative inquiry is a fishing expedition, Weinberg responded, “That is not what we’re going to do.”

“We want clear policies and procedures that everybody who works for state government, including our independent authorities … know what the rules and regulations are, what the procedures are, and they’ll be no questions in the future,” she went on to say.

“We understand that there are going to be people that they’d like to hire, but we just want to make sure that there are rules set in place that really examine this person’s background,” said Pintor Marin (D-Essex).

Murphy spokesman complains about a ‘leak’

Murphy, speaking at an unrelated news conference held later in Trenton yesterday, highlighted the efforts of his own administration to review the sexual-assault allegations and related issues. He added, “I respect those processes (and) I have no reason not to respect the legislative process.”

But later in the day, Murphy spokesman Mahen Gunaratna took issue with the lawmakers’ decision to disclose the names of those who’ve been asked by the committee to retain documents to assist the inquiry, calling it a “leak” in a statement that was provided to reporters.

“From the beginning, we’ve asked that the Legislature’s inquiry stay focused on the issues at hand and not be politicized,” Gunaratna said.