A top official at the New Jersey Department of Health has been fired from a job that involved planning the state’s testing protocols for COVID-19, overseeing emergency medical services and coordinating with other government agencies to prepare for public health crises.
Gov. Phil Murphy and the DOH declined to comment on what they called a personnel matter. “Sixty-four thousand people work for me, not counting the (state) authorities. People come and go a fair amount actually,” Murphy said when asked at his daily media briefing about the firing of Chris Neuwirth.
While state officials declined to explain the reason for his departure, Murphy appeared to confirm reports that it was related to a second job Neuwirth held in the private sector — something that was not included on his disclosure form for the state, as required by law. (NJ Spotlight has not been able to independently confirm his role with the company, Margolis Healy; Neuwirth did not appear on the firm’s website as of Friday.)
“I’ve got no comment on Chris’s situation,” Murphy continued, before adding, “Folks … it’s par for the course if you’re not supposed to have another source of income.”
As assistant commissioner of Public Health Infrastructure, Laboratories and Emergency Preparedness, Neuwirth was a regular presence at Murphy’s daily media briefings during the early weeks of the state’s public response to the coronavirus pandemic, answering reporters’ questions about the state’s testing capacity and the availability of protective gear. He played a critical role in the development of the drive-through test sites in Bergen and Monmouth counties and, in mid-March, Murphy and Department of Health Commissioner Persichilli praised his work.
Neuwirth says he’s a scapegoat
But Neuwirth hasn’t participated in dally media briefings since March 25 — days before the first public testing site opened — although he was still playing an active role behind the scenes a month later. While the state has not explained why he was let go, Neuwirth claimed in a social media post Thursday evening — hours after sources said he was “escorted out” of the health department’s offices in Trenton — that he was “blatantly scapegoated and fired” and blamed unknown “people … for the lies and misconduct that resulted in my termination.”
Neuwirth did not respond to private requests via social media for additional information. According to the DOH, he earned $143,750 and was hired in late October 2018. When he filed his state financial disclosure form in January 2019, Neuwirth said he was a licensed EMT and firefighter and he listed himself as owner of Flemington-based Emergency Manager Project LLC, which he said provided “public safety education and training.”
Republicans quickly raised questions about Neuwirth’s dismissal in the middle of the pandemic and pushed Murphy to provide clarity. Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen), called for the State Ethics Commission to investigate the firing.
“It seems like a mess. And it’s at the worst time in our history to have this critical area be a mess,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), who has worked with the DOH on emergency medical services issues before and during the pandemic. The Murphy administration “need(s) to right the ship, in real time, like now. And be completely transparent about this,” said O’Scanlon, who has become a vocal critic of the governor’s reopening strategy.
Other vacancies at health department
O’Scanlon said he is also concerned about a lack of staff capacity at the DOH. According to its website, with Neuwirth gone there are now three vacancies in leadership positions within the division of Public Health Services, which includes the office headed by state epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan. Former principal deputy commissioner Jackie Cornell, who oversaw the division, left her job for a role with a medical marijuana company one year ago and has not been replaced.
“It’s inexcusable at this point that our health department is not operating at full efficiency and full transparency,” given the coronavirus pandemic, O’Scanlon said.
Murphy downplayed the vacancies when asked Friday, noting that there are always empty positions in some state department or agency. “The most important health people are the ones you see up here every day, beginning with that woman,” he said, indicating Persichilli, seated to his right. The governor went on to praise the role of other top state officials, noting, “This is the ultimate ‘it takes a village.’”
The state recently has hired at least two consultants to assist the DOH in its coronavirus response, including experts from Manatt Health that Murphy said are providing direct support for efforts to contain the spread of the virus in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities and a longer-term plan on how to better protect the staff and residents.
Officials have declined for weeks to reveal the terms of these contracts. But late Friday the state made public a purchase order indicating that on Wednesday the State Police paid Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP — the parent company for Manatt Health — $500,000 for “one unit” of long-term care consulting. Other contract documents released by the state suggest Manatt officials signed the agreement on May 8, the day after it was announced by the Murphy administration.
Details of contracts with consultants
Department of Health officials also said staff members have been shifted to help cover the vacant posts. Communications director Donna Leusner said the state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Falzone, has been serving as the acting deputy commissioner — overseeing public health services — and the department has interviewed a half-dozen candidates since August for that position. There are also roughly 50 full-time physicians and epidemiologists in various DOH units who have provided expertise in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, she said, and former state epidemiologist Dr. Eddy Bresnitz was asked to offer his guidance, starting in mid-March.
“Since the end of January, the department has been working full time on the response to COVID-19 and positions critical for the response have been prioritized for hiring including 30 positions for the Division of Public Health, Infrastructure, Laboratories and Emergency Preparedness,” Leusner said.
Some lawmakers, including O’Scanlon and Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), a frequent critic of the governor, said the Senate should quickly convene the special committee formed to investigate the state’s coronavirus response and subpoena Neuwirth as one of the first witnesses. “The only way we’re going to get to the bottom of this mess is with a thorough and immediate investigation,” Pennacchio said.
“Reports that this individual believes he’s being scapegoated only confirms what many suspect: Murphy has moved from spinning answers, deflecting questions, and hiding information from the public to an outright cover-up of his administration’s failures,” New Jersey GOP chairman Doug Steinhardt said. “The people of New Jersey deserve better.”