Lawmakers are beginning to learn exactly how a former high-level official in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration was able to get and keep his job for months even after being accused of sexual assault by a fellow Murphy loyalist. But the answers they’re getting from top administration officials are causing more unease.
An ongoing select-committee investigation into the matter that continued in Trenton yesterday is piecing together a picture of a busy and chaotic Murphy transition in which patronage and loyalty to the campaign were key factors for filling at least some positions at government agencies.
Ultimately, a person accused of rape was able to secure the number two post at the Schools Development Authority even though some key officials — but apparently not the governor himself — had been tipped off about the alleged assault. What’s more, no firm action was taken once the transition gave way to the administration itself, despite more alarms being sounded, including by the alleged victim, Katie Brennan. That meant hundreds of workers at the SDA unknowingly worked for months alongside an alleged rapist. And his accuser, who is also a Murphy administration official, was fearful of running into him at staff meetings or around Trenton.
The man, former Schools Development Authority chief of staff Al Alvarez, remained in the job through early October even though outgoing Murphy chief of staff Peter Cammarano testified yesterday that he personally told Alvarez to “leave his state employment” in late March. That testimony moved up by several months the publicly-known timeline of efforts to force out Alvarez. Alvarez has through a lawyer strongly denied Brennan’s allegations and was never charged with a crime.
Lawmakers have launched their inquiry to identify and eventually try to correct weaknesses in the state’s hiring practices. But, as they listened to lengthy testimony from Cammarano and two other officials yesterday, many showed frustration with the way both the Murphy transition and administration handled the Alvarez case.
Weinberg: ‘…this is just kind of astounding’
“To me, this is just kind of astounding, really,” co-chairwoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said at one point during the hearing when she found out Alvarez was prohibited by the transition team — some of whom knew of the alleged assault — from hiring anyone personally but not prevented from obtaining a job himself.
While rumors had been swirling for weeks in Trenton about a brewing scandal, Brennan’s allegations against Alvarez finally became public in a Wall Street Journal story in early October. In it, she said Alvarez drove her home and raped her following a gathering of campaign staffers and volunteers in April 2017 in Jersey City.
Alvarez went on to become the deputy director of personnel in the Murphy transition even as he was reportedly being investigated by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. Alvarez was never charged, but he stepped down in early October 2018 after the Wall Street Journal contacted him for comment on Brennan’s allegations. (The case has since been reopened and transferred to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.)
Justin Braz, a close friend of Brennan’s who is the administration’s deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs, confirmed an account that Brennan offered earlier this month when she testified before the committee. Brennan, who was hired as the chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, said she confided in Braz about the alleged incident with Alvarez soon after it happened, but he wasn’t a part of the campaign at the time and he didn’t tell anyone about it even after he joined it later on.
Braz said it was during the transition, which he also worked on, when Brennan gave him permission to divulge to transition officials that she believed Alvarez was likely to be arrested and charged with a sexual assault. He said she did not authorize him to say who was making the allegation at the time.
Cammarano confirmed that account during his testimony yesterday, saying Braz shared that information only with him and a lawyer for the Murphy transition. According to Cammarano, the lawyer, Raj Parikh, said “he would need to consider how to handle the situation.”
‘…advised to keep the matter confidential’
He also addressed a key issue in the case: When did Murphy himself first find out about the alleged rape? Cammarano said that outside counsel for the campaign “advised (the transition) not to speak to Mr. Alvarez about the matter, and to keep the matter confidential and not share the information with anyone else,” including the governor.
But he deflected questions about how Alvarez was allowed to advance into a top job in the administration even after Braz had tipped off the transition about his potential legal troubles. Cammarano suggested it was Jose Lozano, executive director of the transition, who had final say over the hiring of most employees. (Lozano has not yet been called to testify).
Cammarano also described yesterday how after he learned from Murphy chief counsel Matt Platkin in late March that Brennan had shared her rape allegations with Platkin personally, he and Platkin then decided “Mr. Alvarez should be asked to leave state government.”
“I therefore asked Mr. Alvarez to come to my office in Trenton on March 26, 2018. I told him that he had been accused of sexual assault, and that he should make arrangements to leave his state employment,” Cammarano said.
Governor was ‘blindsided and completely shocked’
But Alvarez stayed on through early October, and it took questions from a Wall Street Journal reporter to ultimately prompt Alvarez’s departure. Cammarano said that was also around the time Murphy was first fully informed of Brennan’s allegations, along with first lady Tammy Murphy.
“They were both blindsided and completely shocked,” Cammarano said.
Soon after, Murphy announced an internal investigation of the incident led by former state Attorney General Peter Verniero. Murphy announced last week that Cammarano is stepping down from his post as chief of staff early next year.
Yesterday, lawmakers pressed Cammarano to explain how he could bring in Alvarez to tell him to leave state government in March and then allow him to stay in place into early October.
Ruiz: ‘I don’t understand that level of dysfunction’
“You’re the chief of staff, and you’re making this recommendation. I don’t understand that level of dysfunction that takes six, seven months for it to come to close,” said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).
“It’s something that I look back on and try to figure out why did that happen,” Cammarano responded. “I don’t have the answer to it.”
Ruiz asked Cammarano if he thought that, even though he was advised by both transition and administration lawyers not to tell Murphy, he thought it was important to still do so.
“There were times I thought we should,” Cammarano said.
Earlier, during the testimony of former SDA chief executive Charles McKenna, lawmakers learned that McKenna — at Platkin’s behest — had also urged Alvarez to leave his state job in June. But McKenna left his own post in August, well before Brennan’s allegations were aired publicly. McKenna also said he was informed that Alvarez was being hired as his agency’s chief of staff via a text message from Lozano, and that Alvarez did not go through the SDA’s normal hiring procedures.
McKenna, a former chief counsel during former Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure, was asked by Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) whether he would have divulged details of an incident like Alvarez’s to his own boss, had a similar scenario occurred when Christie was governor.
“I have to say every governor is different. But the governor that I worked for, if I didn’t tell him this, I would still be feeling the pain today,” McKenna said.
The committee is expected to resume its questioning of Cammarano at its next scheduled meeting on January 8. Lozano and Platkin are also expected to be called to testify at some point. Alvarez has declined an invitation to appear before the committee, Weinberg said, and lawmakers have decided not to exercise their subpoena power to compel him to testify at this time.