A lawsuit filed by former Assistant Health Commissioner Chris Neuwirth alleges that a top Murphy official tried to jump the line for COVID-19 testing. According to the lawsuit, it happened in April, when cars filled with coughing, fevered New Jersey residents lined up for hours to get COVID-19 tests, which were in critically short supply and reserved for people with symptoms.
The suit says State Police Superintendent Pat Callahan asked Neuwirth to do “a favor” for the governor’s chief of staff, George Helmy, asking him to “go to the home of one of Helmy’s relatives that weekend, to collect specimens from two relatives for testing.” The suit says Neuwirth refused and called the request “a misuse of governmental resources and/or misuse of power.” He ended up getting fired. It’s more fodder for critics of the Murphy administration.
“People get hired and fired all the time, but in the middle of a pandemic? In the middle of where everybody’s isolating?” asked Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris). The lawsuit alleges Neuwirth was told “it was a ‘no-cause termination’ and that his ‘services were no longer needed.’” He claims the administration smeared his reputation, implying he was fired for failing to report a side job as a consultant. “It’s par for the course that you’re not supposed to have another source of income,” said Gov. Murphy.
Neuwirth denies the charge. He wants his job back plus compensation and damages, stating he “continues to experience ongoing emotional distress and significant economic damages.” The State Police and health department won’t comment on pending litigation. Neither did the governor, except to say, “I literally don’t know where we would be in this state without Pat Callahan and George Helmy. They are literally, along with Judy, they are heroes,” referring also to Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli.
A Murphy spokesman said, “We look forward to putting forward a vigorous defense against this meritless complaint.” But in a recent letter, an anonymous group of staffers from the health and human services departments claimed Neuwirth was fired “…because of suspicions that he was getting the truth out to the media, and not because of anything related to outside employment.” Neuwirth insists he never leaked information to the press. The group described a chaotic hunt within the administration for leaks, an “inquisition happening at the Department of Health, (involving) over 20 people, everybody is fearing for their jobs and livelihoods.”
Said Pennacchio, “We need the truth. That letter just goes to the narrative that the Department of Health is in disarray.”
The group’s letter also blasted the half-million-dollar Manatt report, commissioned by the administration to examine New Jersey’s response to the pandemic at long-term care facilities. The letter charges “…this report is not actually shining a light on what really caused deaths. On the contrary, it is obscuring our leadership’s most important mistake…” — Persichilli’s initial directive for nursing homes to readmit discharged hospital patients, even if they were COVID-positive.
“They just glossed over it. To me, it’s a whitewash,” continued Pennacchio.
“In hindsight, everyone can say, ‘We should have done this.’ But everyone was taken aback, and had to figure out on their feet spontaneously what to do,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle (D-Bergen), who chaired a committee examining the pandemic response. She said the Manatt report’s recommendations of better staff and resource management at long-term care facilities will be implemented. “When you lose 6,000 residents, as I said yesterday, they’re members of someone’s family. We need to figure it out and we need to do better.”
State Senate leaders may convene a select committee to investigate further.