Focus In Murphy Hiring Probe Turns To Gaps in State Rules

John Reitmeyer | January 11, 2019 | Politics
During a long day of testimony about how staffer’s rape allegation was handled, legislative select committee explores whether rules and policies are strong enough to prevent a bad situation from recurring

Credit: NJTV News
Peter Cammarano, chief of staff to Gov. Phil Murphy, repeatedly said he followed state confidentiality rules that prevented him from telling anyone about the case.
Legislators in Trenton Thursday finally started to grapple seriously with the main issue surrounding their inquiry into how an alleged rapist was hired by the Murphy administration and then allowed to stay on the job for months.

Their main focus was not the question of who knew about the allegation, who hired him, and why was he allowed to stay in his job after being asked to leave. Rather, it was whether current personnel policies are appropriate and strong enough to take action if such an incident were to occur again.

The legislative select committee, co-chaired by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) and made up of mostly women from both houses, listened to another long day of testimony. Among the witnesses was chief of staff to Gov. Phil Murphy, Peter Cammarano, who repeatedly said he followed state confidentiality rules that prevented him from telling anyone — including the governor — about the serious allegations leveled against Al Alvarez, a former Murphy campaign official who went on to become chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority.

Also a concern for Cammarano was the fact that Alvarez, who had been accused of rape by fellow administration official Katie Brennan during Murphy’s 2017 campaign, was not charged with a crime despite the allegations being investigated by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. His testimony exposed an apparent gray area in state employment policies, as the allegation itself would not come up in a basic background check without formal charges.

“It’s difficult,” Cammarano said about figuring out how to deal with an employee who was never ultimately charged.

‘Women do not have a recourse’

Later, Murphy administration ethics attorney Heather Taylor told the committee that she referred the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office after learning about it in March. But state policy dictated there could be no Attorney General’s investigation because the alleged rape occurred before Brennan and Alvarez were public officials, and the alleged incident did not happen on state property.

When she eventually informed Brennan the state couldn’t do more, Taylor said Brennan lamented that “women do not have a recourse” when an incident doesn’t occur at work. It was one of the more striking moments of yesterday’s testimony.

Figuring out how to create new government policies that give more protections to sexual-assault survivors is one of the key tasks for the committee, which was assembled in late October after Brennan went public with her allegations against Alvarez in a Wall Street Journal story.

For example, lawmakers asked more questions yesterday about the confidentiality rules cited by Cammarano and probed whether exceptions should be made for the most serious of allegations. They are also still trying to determine what governs such situations, where someone is accused of a crime and not charged, yet their employment presents grounds for a legal claim by a co-worker (Brennan has since sued Alvarez, the state and the campaign.)

Brennan, who now serves as the chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, said Alvarez raped her after driving her home following an April 2017 gathering of campaign staffers and volunteers in Jersey City. Alvarez has strongly denied the allegations through an attorney.

Brennan testified before the committee last month, noting that it took until a reporter was asking questions about the incident for Alvarez to finally step down from his role at the SDA even though she had reached out to several high-ranking officials, including the governor himself.

In fact, after the campaign ended successfully for Murphy, Alvarez joined the transition as a deputy director of personnel and then ascended to his job at the SDA.

Confidentiality rules thwart communication

Brennan was also pursuing state employment after the election and tried to notify high-level transition officials about her allegations against Alvarez at the time. But she initially 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.

Earlier this week, Jose Lozano, who served as executive director of the transition, suggested during testimony before the committee that Brennan’s anonymity and the lack of charges being filed made it harder to figure out whether Alvarez shouldn’t have a future with the administration.

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

Cammarano was among those who was also informed about the allegations against Alvarez early on, but Cammarano said he was told during the transition by an attorney that he was barred from talking about the issue due to confidentiality rules. That advice continued when he officially joined the administration in early 2018, and he said it meant even Murphy had to be kept in the dark, an explanation the lawmakers reluctantly accepted yesterday.

“It was an issue that I was told I had to keep confidential,” Cammarano said.

Still, as early as March 2018, Cammarano said he told Alvarez he should leave public office due to the situation. But Cammarano admitted he also didn’t clearly fire Alvarez at the time and, ultimately, Alvarez stayed on until the Wall Street Journal contacted him in early October.

That’s the same time Murphy said he found out the full details of the incident; Brennan had sent him in email in June saying only that she wanted to talk about a “sensitive matter.”

‘How do we tighten that up?’

Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Morris) suggested yesterday that the administration could have put Alvarez on paid administrative leave, but that didn’t seem to be something that was ever under serious consideration based on the existing policies.

Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester) also expressed some frustration as he suggested policies are ultimately only as good as the officials who carry them out. Alvarez was apparently told to leave his job by both Cammarano and former SDA chief executive Charles McKenna but still stayed on.

“How do we tighten that up?” Madden asked.

Later on Thursday, Cammarano surprised the committee by asking for a break after roughly five hours of testimony; he never returned and had his lawyer suggest that he come back at a later date.

When the panel resumed the hearing with its questioning of Taylor, the ethics attorney, members went over in painstaking detail how the state typically handles allegations such as those raised by Brennan. Taylor explained it’s her job to field the complaints and forward them to the Attorney General’s Office for review.

But even after accepting Taylor’s explanation that an official investigation could not be launched by the state for jurisdictional reasons, lawmakers highlighted how that meant Brennan was then forced to risk running into Alvarez at staff meetings or on the street in Trenton during the work week unless she decided to leave a position she worked hard to get.
“We didn’t give her support and she had to go to work the next day,” Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) said of Brennan.

“This is very disappointing,” she said.