Murphy Officials Testify It Wasn’t Their Job to Follow Up On Brennan Allegation

John Reitmeyer | January 9, 2019 | Politics
‘Nobody seems to have responsibility for anything,’ said committee co-chairwoman Loretta Weinberg on a day when lawmakers seemed frustrated with the lack of answers

Credit: NJTV News
Jonathan Berkon, who served as an attorney for Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign, testified yesterday.
Despite hours of testimony Tuesday, no one from the Murphy administration has yet to take responsibility for allowing a former high-level official get and keep a job for months, even after becoming aware that he had been accused of sexual assault.

A select committee of the Legislature is reviewing allegations by a former Murphy campaign volunteer who says she was raped by a colleague and then, later, informed several administration officials of the issue. But the man, Al Alvarez, was still hired as chief of staff of the Schools Development Authority, and allowed to keep his job for months despite being told by members of the governor’s staff to leave.

During a seven-hour session, the committee heard from several officials who said they knew of the issue but for one reason or another, they didn’t believe it was their job to make sure the man left his post. Staffers have testified that they shielded the governor from knowledge of the issue, despite the fact that the woman, Katie Brennan, contacted Murphy and his wife Tammy saying she wanted to talk about a sensitive matter.

Murphy’s deputy chief counsel, an attorney who represented the 2017 campaign, and the official who led the governor’s transition were among those who testified. But lawmakers seem no closer to finding out who exactly signed off on the hiring of Alvarez even after the transition team was notified someone had accused him of committing a sexual assault.

Rumors had been swirling for weeks

“Nobody seems to have responsibility for anything,” said co-chairwoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) at one point during yesterday’s hearing, echoing a theme that came up throughout the day.

Credit: NJTV News
The report said Jose Lozano “appeared to have been relatively more involved than others” in the hiring process.
Jose Lozano, who served as executive director of the Murphy transition, told the lawmakers that it was not his responsibility to approve a hiring at that level even though last month Murphy chief of staff Peter Cammarano had suggested it was Lozano’s responsibility after fielding a similar question during his own appearance before the committee. Earlier testimony had revealed that both Lozano and Cammarano, who also served during the transition, had been notified about accusations against Alvarez but did not block his hiring.

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 published in early October. In it, Brennan, who now serves as the chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, 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 and has strongly denied the allegations through an attorney. But he stepped down in early October 2018 after the Wall Street Journal contacted him for comment on Brennan’s allegations. Brennan has since filed suit against Alvarez, the state and the Murphy campaign.

Before going to the newspaper, Brennan, who testified before the committee last month, said numerous high-level officials were notified about her allegations against Alvarez as early as the transition period. But at that point she did not want to attach her name to the allegations and instead allowed a friend who was working for the transition to share limited information with top officials.

Looking into the matter…

Lozano was not informed directly of the allegations against Alvarez, he told lawmakers yesterday, but was instead notified by Cammarano and transition attorney Raj Parikh, who said he was looking into the matter. Lawmakers pressed Lozano to explain how Alvarez continued in his role with the transition and then ascended to the position at the SDA despite the allegations made against him. In his response, Lozano explained that an accuser had not come forward publicly at the time and that transition officials had also been made aware that no criminal charges were being filed against Alvarez.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been in a position where an accusation is brought forward, but without an accuser,” Lozano said.

He also suggested it was Cammarano and Matt Platkin, who is now the governor’s chief counsel, who could give the final sign-off on a hire for the transition. That drew a quick response from vice-chair Nancy Munoz (R-Union).

“Again, we’re in these silos where everybody knows this information, but nobody goes to the next step,” she said.

Credit: NJTV News
Michael Critchley is an attorney for the select committee.
Michael Critchley, an attorney for the committee, highlighted a similar concern when questioning Jonathan Berkon, who served as an attorney for Murphy’s campaign. It was Platkin and Berkon who were forwarded an email about a “sensitive matter” that Brennan sent directly to Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy in June. The governor offered her only a brief response, and several days later Berkon responded to Brennan and told her Alvarez was in the process of leaving his government job.

Yesterday Berkon told the lawmakers he contacted Brennan initially because he and Platkin determined Brennan’s allegations — which Platkin already knew about — seemed to be a campaign matter. But when lawmakers pressed Berkon to explain why he didn’t give Brennan more details about the handling of Alvarez, Berkon suggested that was a responsibility of the administration. Berkon also sidestepped a question from Critchley about whether Murphy himself had a “legitimate need to know” about the allegations; the governor apparently only learned about them in October as the news was about to break publicly.

Critchley: ‘Everybody points someplace else’

“See, that’s the problem we have. Every time we ask a pointed question, they do this,” Critchley said. “Everybody points someplace else, ‘Don’t talk to me, talk to the campaign, don’t talk to me, talk to the state, don’t talk to me, talk to the administration.’”

Lawmakers have yet to hear directly from Platkin, although he is expected to testify before the committee in the coming days in what is expected to be one of the most closely watched hearings of the investigation. The committee’s stated purpose is to determine whether any employment policies should be revised in the wake of Brennan’s revelations.

One issue that lawmakers will likely delve into more closely is how Platkin — who recused himself from any investigation early on since he knows both Brennan and Alvarez — still held discussions about Alvarez’s employment with Berkon after the email was sent by Brennan to Murphy. So far, the scope and duration of Platkin’s recusal has yet to be reviewed in detail by the committee.

The committee was hoping to hear the Alvarez side of the story but members have said he has declined to appear. Yesterday, they learned for the first time Alvarez’s apparent side of the story. In October, after he was contacted by a Wall Street Journal reporter, he told current SDA chief executive Lizette Delgado Polanco in October he had a relationship with a married woman who was now publicly accusing him of rape. He resigned on the same day, Polanco said.

“I couldn’t believe what was coming out of his mouth,” Polanco said.

She also addressed lawmakers’ questions about whether she should have been told before accepting the top job at the SDA that the agency’s chief of staff had been accused of rape. Instead, she was only told he was in the process of leaving his position.

“Could I have used a heads up? Absolutely. Did I feel disappointed? Absolutely. But I can’t change what they did,” she said.

The committee will reconvene tomorrow with Cammarano scheduled to appear again, and possibly other administration attorneys.