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Governor Responds to Questions about Handling of Sexual-Assault Charge

Hours before leaving on an overseas economic mission, Murphy announces independent investigation into his administration’s hiring of a man accused of sexual assault

Phil Murphy
Credit: NJTV News
Gov. Phil Murphy addresses sexual-assault scandal in his administration at press conference yesterday.

Gov. Phil Murphy is not changing his plan to spend the next nine days traveling overseas for a long-scheduled economic mission even as his administration has been rocked by a sexual-assault scandal that is still developing.

Murphy said yesterday just hours before leaving on the trip to Germany and Israel that his administration is bringing in a former state attorney general to review how a man who has been accused of sexual assault ended up securing and holding a high-level position in state government until he resigned earlier this month.

The alleged incident dates to last year’s gubernatorial campaign, when both the victim and the man she has accused of sexually assaulting her were involved in Murphy’s successful election effort, according to a story published at the weekend by The Wall Street Journal.

In the story, Katie Brennan, who now serves as the chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, graphically detailed an alleged assault that she said took place in April 2017 involving Albert Alvarez, an attorney who resigned as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority earlier this month. During the campaign, Alvarez’s duties included leading outreach efforts to the Latino community. Brennan, a campaign volunteer, said he assaulted her after driving her home from a gathering of campaign staffers that took place at a Jersey City bar, according to the Journal story. Alvarez’s attorney denied that any assault occurred.

Alleged victim wrote to governor and his wife

Brennan reportedly contacted local police shortly after the incident, but the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office chose not to pursue the case. She then contacted a high-ranking member of the Murphy administration in March this year, and in June she wrote to the governor and his wife, Tammy. Reportedly, she did not mention the assault but asked to speak to them about a sensitive matter.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat, said during a news conference yesterday that he knows both individuals, but he only recently became aware of the specific details of the alleged incident.

“Obviously I’m crushed now that I know what happened,” Murphy said during the event in Newark. He also said he was planning to speak with the victim of the alleged assault, who remains a part of his administration, later yesterday.

“For her and all women across New Jersey, we must ensure that the system works,” Murphy said.

But the governor also said he isn’t postponing or changing the agenda for his economic mission to Germany and Israel, which has been planned for months, even as some lawmakers are calling for an investigation of the administration’s hiring practices. Murphy left last night for the first leg of the trip, which will last through the end of the week in Germany, according to his staff.

Case was ‘opened and closed’

“We have a very packed schedule in both countries that we think will bear meaningful fruit for our economy,” he said.

A statement released yesterday by a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office confirmed that an investigation of Brennan’s allegation was “opened and closed” by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office without any charges being filed last year. The statement also said the case was handled by “career detectives and reviewed by veteran special victims prosecutors.”

Still, the statement said after the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office was asked about the alleged incident by the media earlier this month, the case file was reviewed again. At that point, Prosecutor Esther Suarez — who, according to the statement, was not aware of the initial investigation — realized “she personally knew both the complainant and the subject of the investigation.” The case was then referred to the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice “out of an abundance of caution,” and that agency has since tasked the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office with reviewing the case.

“MCPO detectives are reviewing the case file and will take any additional investigative steps they deem appropriate,” the statement said.

Former attorney general to investigate

Peter Verniero
Credit: NJTV News
Former Attorney General Peter Verniero

Meanwhile, Murphy said that former Attorney General Peter Verniero will head up an independent investigation of the Alvarez hiring, with “complete independence and access” to examine how the attorney was able to secure a job in the Murphy administration even after the sexual-assault allegations were made by Brennan. Murphy said yesterday that he was not sure who signed off on the initial hiring of Alvarez when it occurred during the transition.

Alvarez is the second official to resign from the Murphy administration amid a controversy. Last month, former Passaic City Councilman Marcellus Jackson stepped down from a position at the Department of Education when published reports exposed that he served time in federal prison nearly a decade ago after pleading guilty to accepting payments from a fake insurance firm that was a set up as part of a U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation into public corruption.

Murphy said yesterday that Verniero’s investigation would amount to a “systemic review of hiring and vetting in our transition.” Verniero served as chief counsel to former Republican Gov. Christie Whitman before becoming attorney general and later a Supreme Court justice.

“We will not follow the lead of Washington, D.C.,” Murphy said, referring to what many considered to be the rushed review of decades-old sexual-assault allegations against U.S. Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh in the final days of the Senate confirmation process.

“This will be a real investigation, designed to uncover the truth of what happened, wherever it leads,” Murphy said. “We’re not playing politics. We owe the people of New Jersey transparency, and that’s exactly what we’ll provide.”

Some lawmakers want to do their own investigation

Lawmakers from both parties have issued calls for a separate, legislative investigation of the Murphy administration’s hiring practices. Five Republican Assemblywomen yesterday introduced a bill that would establish a joint Senate and Assembly probe. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) issued a statement saying she will seek to have a special legislative committee impaneled to review how sexual assault allegations are handled by law enforcement and the government in New Jersey.

“I am pleased that the Governor has now asked for an investigation, but the Legislature has a responsibility to act and an important independent role to play,” Weinberg said.

But during his news conference, Murphy seemed to push back against the suggestion that lawmakers should conduct their own review of his administration’s actions to ensure that everything was handled properly, as he has maintained.

“This is one of these moments where folks can either grandstand or they can call balls and strikes and try to figure out how do we make New Jersey better for victims of sexual assault,” Murphy said.

The governor was also adamant that the overseas trip shouldn’t be postponed, saying the timing of meetings with the officials abroad was carefully worked out to make sure they didn’t conflict with any national or religious holidays. He also said he would be able to keep tabs on any new developments during the trip.

According to information released by his staff, Murphy will spend this week in Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg in Germany, where he served as U.S. ambassador during the tenure of former President Barack Obama. He will then head to Israel on Saturday for the second leg of the trip, which will take him to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Murphy, who will be accompanied by First Lady Tammy Murphy and several senior administration officials, said yesterday that Choose New Jersey, a business-promotion organization, will cover costs related to the trip.

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