A report commissioned by Gov. Phil Murphy that largely cleared his aides of wrongdoing in their handling of a rape allegation against an ex-state official says Katie Brennan’s claims slipped through the cracks of a chaotic and poorly regulated transition period.
The taxpayer-funded report by former state Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero says members of Murphy’s inner circle acted in good faith. Ultimately, it says, the “system” failed Brennan.
“Whether the decision not to conduct an investigation was made during the transition period, or after the start of the administration, decision-makers appear to have been acting, with the advice of counsel, under their best judgment and understanding of existing law,” the report says.
“Nonetheless, to the extent that transition or governmental officials felt unable to act either because the identity of the alleged victim was unknown or the alleged conduct predated state service, the system failed and is in need of reform.”
Brennan, chief of staff to the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, has accused Albert J. Alvarez of raping her after a campaign gathering in 2017.
She has testified before a special legislative committee investigating Alvarez’s employment that she alerted state officials close to Murphy during the transition and administration but that Alvarez was hired as chief of staff to the New Jersey Schools Development Authority and continued in that employ until he was contacted by the Wall Street Journal in October 2018.
Alvarez has denied the allegations and prosecutors in two counties declined to press charges against him.
The 75-page report says Murphy himself did not know about the allegation until October 2018, something the Democratic governor has long contended, but his staff could have told him without breaking confidentiality laws.
Noting the “national dialogue about instances of deplorable treatment of women in the workplace,” the report called for “long overdue” reforms in how state offices and campaign transition teams handle serious accusations of sexual assault and harassment.
But the inquiry failed to answer the basic question that has vexed lawmakers conducting their own probe into the scandal, finding Alvarez’s hiring was “a foregone conclusion” for which nobody in the governor’s orbit would take responsibility.
After being asked Murphy by Murphy in October to perform the review, Verniero’s four-month investigation found no evidence Murphy had any personal involvement in hiring Alvarez as chief of staff for the Schools Development Authority.
So who hired him?
The frenzied pace of a campaign transition left little paper trail, the report found, and top officials all either professed ignorance or claimed they could not recall.
The governor’s chief counsel “flatly denied” any involvement. His chief of staff “might have signed off orally” but couldn’t remember. Even the head of Murphy’s transition “disclaims any substantive hiring role.”
“No witness during our interviews or before the Legislature stated that he or she hired Mr. Alvarez or recommended him for placement at the SDA. Nor did anyone identify the person who did. Additionally, there does not appear to be any documentary evidence that answers that question. Nor have we had the opportunity to interview Mr. Alvarez,” the report said.
“We are left to surmise that, similar to his joining the transition office, Mr. Alvarez’s hiring into state service was a foregone conclusion given his involvement in the Murphy campaign and association with the transition office,” according to the report.
The report does find some fault with how members of Murphy’s transition team responded to Brennan’s allegation, saying they “might have placed too much emphasis” on the fact that criminal charges were not brought against him. It noted that there is “a distinction between the evidence necessary to pursue a criminal indictment as compared to the lesser standard necessary to satisfy a civil or administrative proceeding.”
Officials, including Murphy’s chief of staff at the time, Pete Cammarano, have testified they felt the specter of a lawsuit hanging over them if they denied Alvarez a job on the basis of an allegation.
Verniero says transition officials should have pushed for more information when they first learned about the allegation in December 2017. While Raj Parikh, legal counsel for the transition, said he was loathe to discuss the allegation with Alvarez, fearing he would put the then-anonymous accuser at risk for retaliation, Verniero said this was a misstep.
He also found Cammarano should have followed up with Alvarez once he made the decision Alvarez had to go. The chief of staff met with Alvarez in March to tell him to begin looking for another job. Alvarez was told again in June by his boss at the SDA to make arrangements. Yet, he didn’t resign until he was contacted by a reporter in October.
The governor’s office, the report said, “should have moved more expeditiously in following up on Mr. Alvarez’s departure from state service after it raised the issue with him in March.”
Additionally, Verniero concluded Murphy likely did not know about the sexual assault claim until October, but someone on his senior staff could have told him. The confidentiality rules dictating who may be informed of a misconduct claim “contain sufficient leeway for a governor to be informed of allegations involving a senior member of the executive branch.”
The report includes a number of recommendations, including expanding and clarifying state equal employment opportunity rules and modeling gubernatorial transitions after presidential transitions, wherein candidates begin assembling their administrations before the general election.
Tuesday night — no doubt in anticipation of Verniero’s report being released — Murphy announced a new set of procedures that he said would clarify and improve the process of investigating sexual harassment and misconduct claims in New Jersey government.
The new procedures will apply to people who work for a governor in the transition period — from after the election and before being sworn in — as well as to people who apply for jobs in state government, according to Murphy’s announcement.
The rules also broadening the state’s authority to investigate. Senior ethics and EEO officials have told the legislative committee investigating Alvarez’s appointment they did not have the jurisdiction to investigate the allegation because neither Alvarez nor Brennan were state employees at the time of the alleged assault. The new rule permits investigations regardless of when the accuser or accused joined the state payroll.
It’s unclear how much the review will cost taxpayers. Verniero’s firm, Sills Cummis & Gross, was hired at $350 an hour in October. A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, Lee Moore, said the firm has not yet billed the state for its work.
A spokesman for Murphy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.