Legislators have heard from more than a dozen witnesses during their ongoing investigation into how an alleged rapist landed a top job in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration last year. But they still haven’t learned the answer to the basic question of who signed off on his hiring. The nagging issue has become a major mystery in Trenton that continues to dog the governor.
The legislative inquiry continued yesterday with lawmakers hearing directly from Lynn Haynes, a lawyer who seemed to be a key figure since she served as director of personnel for the governor’s transition team after his successful 2017 campaign.
But Haynes denied that it was her responsibility to make the final call on hiring Al Alvarez, a former Murphy campaign official who became chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority and remained on the job for months after being accused of sexual assault.
The stated goal of the legislative committee is not just to determine what happened, but also to come up with new guidelines for state government when handling accusations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. In what could amount to a pre-emption of that objective, the Murphy administration released its own proposed changes to the state’s administrative rules last evening.
Pattern of responses beginning to draw laughs
Lawmakers have suggested that inconsistencies which have emerged in the hearings have only stunted their efforts to contribute to updating state hiring and personnel policies. The inconsistencies include witnesses pointing fingers at others as likely being responsible for Alvarez’s hiring. Despite the serious subject matter, each time a new witness shrugs off the same question during the hearings it’s starting to draw laughs, even from some of the lawmakers on the panel.
Haynes is just the latest top official from the Murphy transition or administration to suggest someone else was responsible. Even Murphy himself has maintained in response to questions posed by reporters in recent weeks that he doesn’t know exactly who is responsible.
“I have to compose myself because I’m just very frustrated,” said co-chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) during one of those moments yesterday.
“As you can see, it’s just unbelievable,” she went to say during the questioning of Haynes.
While rumors had been swirling for weeks in Trenton about a brewing scandal, the allegations against Alvarez finally became public in a Wall Street Journal story published last October. In it, Katie Brennan, a former campaign volunteer 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 has strongly denied the allegations through an attorney and was never charged with a crime.
When Brennan testified before the committee in December, she told lawmakers that she was terrified of running into Alvarez at a meeting or elsewhere in Trenton as he remained in his high-level position for months even though officials have testified that they asked him forcefully to leave state government. She also said she didn’t think it was fair for her to have to resign while her alleged attacker kept his job.
All deny responsibility
One of the key issues that the legislative panel has been trying to determine is how Alvarez was able to secure his job at the SDA in the first place despite transition officials knowing that allegations against him had been made when he was serving as deputy director of personnel under Haynes. Previous witnesses — including Jose Lozano, who led the transition; Matthew Platkin, who went on to become Murphy’s chief counsel; and Peter Cammarano, Murphy’s former chief of staff — have all denied responsibility for hiring Alvarez. Charlie McKenna, the SDA’s former chief executive, also testified that he did not place Alvarez at the authority.
Yesterday, Haynes told the lawmakers that her signature appeared on an official offer letter that was sent to Alvarez, but that she doesn’t remember signing the letter. Haynes said it was likely a form letter since the transition was issuing dozens of offers to potential hires at the time. Haynes also suggested it was a matter of routine that her name would appear on the letters, often with a digital signature, given her unpaid role as director of personnel for the transition.
The power to hire Alvarez for the position at the SDA would have likely been either Lozano’s, Platkin’s or Cammarano’s, Haynes said.
“I was not involved with his selection,” she said.
With the mystery still not solved, as her appearance continued lawmakers began to bounce other theories off Haynes, including whether Alvarez could have effectively placed himself at the SDA.
“I don’t think so,” responded Haynes.
Sen. Cunningham’s pointed question about Murphy
Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) also floated the idea that Murphy himself could have made the hire given Alvarez had been a veteran of the campaign.
“I just think there is one more person that to me seems like the viable person to have made the decision to hire Al Alvarez, and I just want to ask you is it possible that the governor-elect hired Al Alvarez?” Cunningham asked.
After a pause, Haynes responded. “That wasn’t part of the process, having the governor involved,” she said. “I don’t know. I would just be speculating.”
While Brennan sent the governor and first lady Tammy Murphy an email last June seeking to discuss a “sensitive matter,” she did not share the details of her allegations with the governor. Murphy has maintained that he only found out about the incident in October as the newspaper story was about to be published.
Murphy was asked directly during an appearance on public radio earlier this week by WNYC’s Nancy Solomon whether he knows who hired Alvarez. The governor initially pointed to his administration’s ongoing investigation into Brennan’s allegations. Launched in the wake of the newspaper story, that probe is being led by former state Attorney General Peter Verniero.
After Solomon pressed him for a “yes” or “no” answer on the question of who exactly hired Alvarez, Murphy said, “The answer is, I don’t know, and I want to wait to see what the report says.”
Administration proposes new workplace procedures
After yesterday’s hearing ended the Murphy administration released its proposed changes to the state’s workplace procedures. Among the proposals are new rules that would allow new corrective measures to be taken after a complaint is lodged, such as removing someone from the workplace after a complaint involving physical harm has been made against them, pending an investigation. The administration is also calling for an expansion of the state’s jurisdiction in investigating incidents — one of the issues that has come up during the legislative inquiry is the state’s lack of jurisdiction to investigate an incident that occurred before someone became a state employee.
Under the proposals, the definition of sexual harassment would also be broadened to ensure it includes incidents of coercion or “lack of consent, such as sexual assault.”
“These additional measures clearly dictate the appropriate course of action to be taken by both survivors and the state,” Murphy said in a statement. “By embracing a survivor-centered approach in New Jersey, we are creating an environment where survivors of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault are not only encouraged to come forward, but when doing so, they are met with dignity, respect, and a straightforward process to attain justice.”