A long-awaited outside review of how Gov. Phil Murphy’s top aides handled rape allegations leveled by one high-ranking staffer against another backs up the governor’s claim that he was kept out of the loop by top officials. Murphy now says their decision not to tell him was a mistake.
The taxpayer-funded report released yesterday by former state Supreme Court Justice and Attorney General Peter Verniero also doesn’t resolve the key issue of who hired the man at the center of the controversy, meaning that question is likely to dog the first-term governor even as he’s hoping to put the hiring scandal behind him despite an ongoing legislative inquiry.
Verniero’s 73-page analysis does suggest mistakes were made by both high-ranking transition and administration officials after they learned that Al Alvarez, a former campaign official who went on to serve as the transition’s deputy personnel director, had been accused of sexual assault by another person who was involved in the transition.
The report said top administration officials, once they became aware of the nature of the allegations, should have acted more forcefully to remove Alvarez from the $140,000-a-year job he had secured at the Schools Development Authority. It also second-guessed their decision to keep the matter secret from the governor until just before the accuser, Katie Brennan, came forward publicly in a newspaper article.
“In our view, as head of the executive branch, the Governor could ‘have a legitimate need to know’ about a serious allegation involving a senior member of his administration,” the report said, citing allowable exceptions to state confidentiality rules. Murphy agreed with that conclusion in a statement issued later yesterday.
Governor: ‘Knowing what I know now’
“Knowing what I know now, I wish I was informed earlier by my team,” the governor said.
Brennan, in a statement provided by her lawyer, also raised the issue of confidentiality yesterday, saying state regulations were effectively “weaponized.”
“When I alerted the transition, they used confidentiality to prevent an investigation. When I wanted to tell the Governor, they invoked confidentiality to stop him from knowing,” she said. “When I wanted to know why Al Alvarez was leaving State employment, they used confidentiality to hide the reason. But confidentiality didn’t stop them (from) telling my rapist that I made a complaint.”
Sen. Loretta Weinberg and other lawmakers who sit on the bipartisan select committee that’s examining the case took issue with the report’s overall conclusions and accused Verniero of issuing a largely vague analysis that did not hold many top officials fully accountable.
“There continues to be too many unanswered questions, too many inconsistencies and contradictions, and too many people unable to provide a true accounting,” said Weinberg (D-Bergen).
The allegations against Alvarez first became public in a Wall Street Journal story published last October. In it, 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 by two different county prosecutor’s offices that investigated Brennan’s claims.
After the story was published, Murphy announced that Verniero was being hired to conduct an outside investigation that would culminate with the issuing of a report into the circumstances surrounding Alvarez’s hiring; it was also to include a review of state vetting procedures of possible hires. Around the same time, the Legislature approved the launching of its own investigation using a select committee of members from both parties and both houses.
While the select committee started by hearing testimony from Brennan, Verniero’s report said she did not agree to be interviewed by his law firm, Sills, Cummis & Gross. Murphy, who has not appeared before the committee, did agree to be interviewed for the report.
Verniero’s report seemed to rely a good deal on testimony taken by the committee, using quotes from several different witnesses throughout.
Nobody took responsibility
After seven hearings, one of the main frustrations of select committee members is their inability to get anyone in Murphy’s transition or administration to take responsibility for hiring Alvarez. During their sworn testimony, 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, all denied responsibility for hiring Alvarez.
Charlie McKenna, the SDA’s former chief executive, and Lynn Haynes, the transition’s director of personnel, also testified that they did not place Alvarez at the authority.
The report said Cammarano acknowledged for Verniero’s review that “he might have signed off orally on the ultimate hiring decision.” It also said Lozano “appeared to have been relatively more involved than others” in the hiring process. But it doesn’t say definitively who was responsible and goes so far as to say Alvarez’s hiring was a “foregone conclusion based on his affiliation with the Murphy campaign and the transition office, and due to the fact that he was well known and presumably viewed positively within the Murphy hiring circle.”
The report doesn’t directly take on a theory floated by some lawmakers that Alvarez may have effectively hired himself for the SDA position, but it does address the issue of whether it could have been Murphy who placed Alvarez at the outside agency.
Murphy not involved, ‘to the best of his recollection’
“To the best of his recollection, the Governor added that he was not involved with the vetting or hiring of Mr. Alvarez relating to either a position in the transition office or his eventual hiring at the SDA,” the report said.
Brennan emailed Murphy last June seeking to speak with him about a “sensitive matter” that had happened during the campaign. This was after she grew frustrated that Alvarez remained in his job for months even after she had informed top officials of her allegations, including Platkin. The report backs up Murphy’s statements that he did not know about the true nature of her allegations until just before the newspaper story broke in October.
“The Governor told us that he did not know of the allegation prior to then,” the report said. “Witnesses with whom we spoke confirmed his account.”
Verniero’s report suggests top transition officials should have conducted a more thorough review of the allegations against Alvarez, including by trying to interview both Alvarez and Brennan. They also should have written down the steps they took to ensure Alvarez wouldn’t interact with his accuser as she was also seeking a job with the administration at the time.
The report also suggests gubernatorial campaigns should start assembling a transition operation as soon as possible after winning party primaries in June, echoing advice issued last year in a report from Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Cost of investigation not disclosed
Verniero’s report also questions whether $250,000 is an adequate amount of state funding for the transition; some other states allocate far more. State law should also be clarified to make sure the state’s employment rules apply to transition officials, it said.
Murphy said yesterday that his administration fully accepts the “hard truths” in the report.
“I agree with all the corrective actions Justice Verniero recommends, and I will work collaboratively with the Legislature and others to ensure their adoption,” he said.
The governor’s office did not disclose yesterday how much Verniero’s firm is billing the state for its investigation. It responded to a reporter’s written public-records request seeking any legal bills by saying that that information could only be obtained from the state Attorney General’s Office, which did not immediately respond to the same records request. (New Jersey’s public-records law lists bills among the materials where “immediate access ordinarily shall be granted.”)
The select committee will be preparing its own report and making recommendations for ways to change state hiring and personnel policies once its investigation ends. Several lawmakers who sit on the committee openly criticized Verniero’s findings, hearkening back to similar complaints made in 2014 after a taxpayer-funded legal report cleared former Gov. Chris Christie of any wrongdoing in the Bridgegate scandal.
Pintor Marin: ‘It boggles the mind…’
Weinberg said yesterday that Verniero’s report was “peppered with vagaries and inconsistencies.”
“The report appears to make more of an effort to exonerate the principals who were involved or should have been involved than it does to shed light on this case,” she said. “There is no accountability and no one willing or able to take responsibility.”
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), the committee’s co-chair, said the issue of who hired Alvarez “should not be an unsolvable mystery.”
“It boggles the mind that after months of interviews and investigation, Mr. Verniero and his team cannot identify the person who hired Al Alvarez to be the Chief of Staff at the Schools Development Authority,” Pintor Marin said.
Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic) also raised the issue of accountability in her critique. “While the report claims it was the system that failed Katie Brennan, it was in fact the Governor and senior officials in his transition office and administration who failed her,” Corrado said.