Big dilemma for hiring oversight panel: Whose testimony to trust?
TRENTON — After nearly three and a half hours of testimony from Al Alvarez, lawmakers were left Tuesday still without a definitive answer to the question that has vexed them since December: Who hired Alvarez to a $140,000 state job, despite knowing of allegations he had sexually assaulted someone during the 2017 campaign?
They got some clues, as Alvarez said only three people had the power to approve it. But in order to believe Alvarez, they’ll have to trust his version of events over details they’ve been told – all of it under oath – from Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief counsel, former chief of staff, transition director and school construction program chief executive officer.
And Katie Brennan, the former campaign volunteer turned state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency director who says Alvarez raped her in April 2017 – a charge he denies, in a case in which two county prosecutor’s offices decided not to bring charges.
“We need to review that with our attorneys,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen. “There were a lot of inconsistencies today, and there have been in the past. So I think that is going to take a much more in-depth review with our attorneys.”
“He reiterated what I think a lot of others had said beforehand, that the transition process is a crazy and hectic process,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex. “I don’t think any of us are surprised by that. I think the one thing that was missed, and that’s obviously something the committee is going to be touching upon, is at some point there has to be a formal process that falls into place when the informal process is complete.”
The informality of the process by which Alvarez was hired as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, in which the most official interview took place at a Starbucks, was a constant theme.
“Your testimony basically is that, as I can hear it, no one hired you. You just assumed the position,” said Michael Critchley, an attorney for the committee.
Alvarez said he disagreed with that. He said all hiring decisions had to be signed off on by either Pete Cammarano, the now-former chief of staff; Jose Lozano, who ran the transition and now heads Choose New Jersey; or chief counsel Matt Platkin. He called Cammarano and Platkin “the ultimate decision makers” – but that “I could not tell you” who decided to hire him.
“I spoke to all of those individuals about my interest in this job. No one ever told me that I was not qualified or that I should not seek that position,” said Alvarez, who said that “if there was an obstacle” to being hired, Cammarano or Lozano would have told him.
Critchley said he understands that Alvarez had expressed interest in the job.
“But then somebody has to say, ‘You’re hired,’” Critchley said. “Who said, ‘You’re hired?’”
“I never – so, to answer your question, I never had a conversation with Mr. Cammarano where he sat me down and interviewed me and said, ‘You want the job of chief of staff? You’re hired,’” Alvarez said. “I never had that conversation with him. Never had that conversation with Mr. Lozano. No one ever said to me, ‘You’re hired.’”
Alvarez, who was deputy personnel director for Murphy’s transition office, said he rarely discussed hiring issues with Platkin, beyond those of the Office of the Attorney General.
“I can’t tell you that I know who specifically said, ‘You’re hired.’ I just can tell you honestly that I know that I expressed my interest there, and no one objected to me going there,” Alvarez said.
“It in no way seemed foreign to me that as I was going through this process, it didn’t seem foreign – it seemed that a lot of the people who were getting jobs, folks who had worked on the campaign and were working at this point during the transition, were getting the same sort of treatment in the sense that it was very informal, just conversations in the transition office,” he said.
Among the key moments in Alvarez’s testimony:
On learning from Lozano that the position of SDA chief of staff was available: “In my initial conversation, I don’t think I knew exactly where I wanted to go. So in subsequent conversations, I disclosed to him that I was interested in the SDA and potentially being the CEO. And then I think a later conversation happened where he advised me that the SDA CEO position was not going to be available, that Mr. (Charlie) McKenna was going to stay, but the chief of staff position was available and would I be interested in that. And I said yes. And then he advised me then if I really was interested, then I should meet with Mr. McKenna.”
On his March 2018 conversation with Cammarano: “He did advise me at that meeting that he was aware of the allegation that was made against me. Immediately I advised him that I had been investigated and no charges have been filed against me. He stopped me at that point and told me he didn’t want to go into the details. He was aware of that, but the point of the conversation was not to discuss what had allegedly happened. But it was just to make sure that I was informed, that I was advised that he knew about the allegations made against me. And that the allegation would make my continued tenure in state government untenable. … I came away feeling that he was making it clear he would prefer that I leave state government.”
Alvarez said he made no real effort to find a new job in the 10 weeks after that meeting: “It was made clear to me they wanted me to leave. They were at that point – I never took it as I was being forced to leave, I was being terminated. … My takeaway is that it was not a direction.”
On his June 2018 conversation with Platkin: “He made it clear there was really no choice. There was no option. So I told him I’d be willing to consider resigning if in fact he could help me find a job, because I am a divorced father of two boys. I have responsibilities and obligations to my family. And I wanted assistance and some time in trying to find a new job. And he agreed. He said yes, OK.”
“He was making it clear he wanted me to leave. I was making it clear that I denied the allegation and felt it was unfair for them to force me to leave. And that if I had to leave, I would only do so if they agreed to give me some time to find a job (and) that they would assist me.”
Alvarez said he didn’t talk to Murphy about his forced departure from state government.
Alvarez testified under an agreement that the committee wouldn’t ask about the alleged rape or subsequent investigations. But he addressed it in his opening statement, making reference to the investigatory materials his lawyers recently obtained and provided to reporters from Politico.
“I stand by my previous statement that I have been falsely accused. The sexual contact between myself and Miss Brennan was consensual,” Alvarez said. “The files from the Hudson and Middlesex County prosecutor’s offices corroborate my account of that evening and will assist in exonerating me in the eyes of the public, which is why I sought their release.
“While my difficulties over the past year and a half are not comparable to the trauma faced by the survivors of sexual assault, these false allegations have devastated my career and have brought an emotional toll upon myself and my loved ones that no one should have to go through,” he said.
The existence of the allegations was referenced often over the course of the day, but lawmakers didn’t press for details. The closest they got was when Weinberg asked Alvarez whether he felt an obligation to tell Murphy campaign, transition or administration officials about it before they finally raised it with him.
“No,” Alvarez said. “I was completely confident that the allegations were false. That they were already investigated. I was never charged with a crime. And the applications, typically when they ask you, for employment ask if you’ve ever been indicted or convicted of a crime.”
“I did not feel it pertinent to tell a prospective employer that an allegation, which I believed to be false, which was investigated by a criminal prosecutor’s office, an investigatory unit, which decided to not charge me, was relevant,” Alvarez said.
“Well,” Weinberg, “obviously your potential employers when they did find out did think it was pertinent, and it had a reflection on your potential employment.”
Brennan, in a statement issued after the hearing, noted that Alvarez said he had been told by Hudson County prosecutors in October that he would not face charges. Brennan said she was told in December.
“Mr. Alvarez has claimed in his testimony and in the PR campaign leading up to it that my rape was consensual. Mr. Alvarez’s deliberate omission and misrepresentation of pertinent facts and gross misleading of the public to paint himself as innocent and me as untruthful is abhorrent," Brennan said.
“Mr. Alvarez’s legal team is in possession of information and documents from the prosecution file that the court has not yet ordered be provided to my team. This is a disgraceful imbalance, and it must be rectified if there is any hope of ensuring me justice," she said. "I look forward to ensuring the full truth is laid bare as we continue that pursuit of justice in this case."