Committee hears conflicting testimony over sexual assault allegations

Questions continue to hound the governor over how a former campaign staffer accused of rape got a job in his administration. Friday’s Select Oversight Committee hearing tried to find out how much the attorney for Murphy’s transition team knew.

“The governor never asked me directly for any legal advice and I never provided any to him,” Raj Parikh said.

But Parikh did serve as outside counsel for then-Gov. Elect Phil Murphy’s transition team, and a month after the election, he helped them decide how to handle Katie Brennan’s then-anonymous accusation that she’d been sexually assaulted by campaign worker Al Alvarez in April 2017. Parikh testified that he advised the transition staff to protect Brennan’s identity.

“At any point did you direct any of the aforementioned not to tell the governor?” asked committee co-chair Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

“I did not,” Parikh replied.

But that conflicts with how Murphy’s former Chief of Staff Pete Cammarano recalled events. He told the Select Oversight Committee that the governor wasn’t informed about the alleged assault based on advice from transition counsel, including Parikh.

“The transition counsel instructed us that it was a confidential matter and we should not disclose it to anybody,” Cammarano testified on Dec. 18.

Parikh nevertheless insisted.

“I did not tell anyone that, based upon the interactions between the governor and Al Alvarez, that they shouldn’t talk to the governor about the allegations about Al Alvarez,” Parikh said.

Despite Brennan’s allegations, and much to her discomfort, Alvarez was hired to head the Schools Development Authority. Parikh said not hiring him could’ve created legal issues.

“I don’t believe that I was ever asked whether they could not hire Mr. Alvarez. If they had asked me that question at the time, based upon the limited information we had, I would’ve told them that not hiring him based solely on this allegation could have been a violation of state or federal law,” Parikh said.

Brennan initially reported the allegations to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, which declined to bring charges, saying the case was too weak. She then told the Murphy administration, which twice ordered Alvarez to leave his $140,000-a-year state job, even though he denied Brennan’s accusations. In fact, Alvarez didn’t resign until Brennan in desperation took her story to The Wall Street Journal, which is when the governor says he first heard about it. Her case was re-assigned and re-examined by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, which this week also decided not to charge Alvarez. Brennan reacted with anger and anguish.

“I went from numb, to angry, to crying, wildly crying on my way to a meeting,” Brennan said in an video. “To feel like your trauma is denied, again, that’s what it feels like.”

“Neither time has she been able to tell her story to a grand jury. Neither time has she been called in as a witness to present her story,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi. “For any other victim out there, they’re now sitting there going, ‘Why bother coming forward?’ And I think that’s really problematic.”

“This woman has done everything that she should be expected to do. And so far, with the exception of the investigation we’re doing here, she does not feel that anybody’s been responsive, and I can understand that,” said Weinberg.

The committee’s got more more witnesses to call, and more question to answer, like who hired Al Alvarez? So far, nobody seems to know.