Scandal or mistake, Murphy hiring questions ‘incredibly damaging’
If Gov. Phil Murphy wants to limit the political fallout from his administration’s handling of warnings from a campaign volunteer that she had been sexually assaulted by a man the administration hired, Murphy should encourage the Legislature’s investigation, political analysts said.
The state Senate and Assembly on Tuesday announced a special Select Committee on Investigation a day after Murphy announced three inquiries of his own – two within his administration, and one by the law firm of former Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero, a former Republican attorney general and top gubernatorial staffer.
Seton Hall University political scientist Matthew Hale said now that the Legislature announced it will investigate, “[Murphy] ought to embrace that as well.”
“The more that he can do to hang lanterns on this problem, with openness and transparency, the better,” Hale said. “I don’t think that there is any downside to having everyone have an opportunity to investigate what went on in this situation.”
Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Callahan Harrison said it’s important that an investigation be done by someone who is fully independent. Verniero is outside the administration but was hired by Murphy for this task.
“With regard to legitimacy and resources, if I’m the governor, I think it’s a good idea to enable the Legislature to undertake this investigation,” Harrison said.
Albert Alvarez, who directed Latino and Muslim outreach for the Murphy campaign last year, resigned Oct. 2 from his position as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority. Katie Brennan, who now is chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, alleges that he raped her in April 2017 – and that she told Hudson County prosecutors, who investigated but didn’t bring charges, and directly or through a friend told the transition and administration what had happened.
It took around four months for Alvarez to leave his state job after he agreed to resign in April. He departed when the Wall Street Journal asked for comment for a story.
Harrison said the episode has been “incredibly damaging” to Murphy – not the initial hiring of Alvarez, but the subsequent response to Katie Brennan’s efforts to notify them.
“I don’t know that anyone was saying that he made a mistake at the outset,” Harrison said. “But I think that the problem ensued when the woman who brought the charges essentially kept banging her head up against the wall trying to get someone in the (transition) and then the administration to do something about it. And I think that is something that right now, the political culture is not very tolerant of.”
Harrison said the story has already hurt Murphy’s ability to get priorities through the Legislature and that even people close to the administration are privately engaging in the same criticism as opponents are doing publicly.
“In the kind of political cognoscenti circles, there is essentially a kind of waiting for the Murphy administration to slip up, that he because of how he came into office and because of the kind of people that he has surrounded himself with, there is not a great deal of deep tested loyalty,” Harrison said.
“But I also believe that this has shaken confidence in Murphy’s leadership among people within his own circle,” she said. “And I think, particularly for some women who have been aligned with Gov. Murphy, they have been surprised by these allegations and are taking them to heart.”
Harrison said the story qualifies as a scandal, given that Alvarez was compelled to resign simply because the Wall Street Journal called for comment for a story.
Hale said it’s too soon to say it’s a scandal and whether Murphy will sustain lasting political damage.
“It’s too early to tell because we don’t know where the breakdown was. We know that something didn’t get done, it seems like. We know that this is a credible witness and it was not followed up in the way that it should be,” Hale said. “But a scandal to me is a cover-up. This could be mistakes, and mistakes don’t have to be scandals.”
At a minimum, the story is “a wound for the Democratic Party,” Hale said.
“It does seem like it’s a pattern of him hiring people who are sort of politically connected for jobs without checking out who these people are,” Hale said. “If that’s the pattern and the story that comes out, I think he can be in a lot of jeopardy.”
“On the other hand, he’s hired a Republican to investigate it. And he seems to be saying very clearly and directly that mistakes were made, and maybe he made them, and we’re going to get to the bottom of this and we’re going to fix it,” he said. “As long as that keeps going, then I think he can get beyond it.”
“The bigger threat to him is the theme that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, that he’s sort of outmatched by the professional politicians,” Hale said. “The idea that he is kind of not prepared and outmatched as a governor, this story fits right into that narrative.”