Chief: Murphy’s own lawyers said don’t tell him about rape allegation
Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief of staff said Tuesday that he told an administration official who had been accused of rape to leave his job 10 weeks earlier than it had been known he was urged to depart – but never followed up on that late March request.
Pete Cammarano, who is leaving his post in Murphy’s office in January, told a special legislative committee he told Albert Alvarez to leave his position as chief of staff at the state Schools Development Authority on March 26 because he had been accused of sexual assault.
“Mr. Alvarez adamantly denied the allegations, became teary-eyed and emotional, but I believe he fully understood my instructions that he was to leave state service,” Cammarano said.
It took until early October, after inquiries about the rape allegations by the Wall Street Journal, for Alvarez to finally leave his job.
“Where’s the disconnect between that March conversation and when he actually leaves?” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “I mean, you’re the chief of staff and you’re making this recommendation. I don’t understand that level of dysfunction that takes six, seven months for it to come to a close.”
Four days before Cammarano told Alvarez to find a new job, Katie Brennan, who is now chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, had told Murphy’s chief counsel, Matt Platkin, about the alleged assault in a dinner meeting in Jersey City.
Cammarano said he had been told by attorneys, including Platkin, not to speak to anyone else about the matter, including Murphy. He said Platkin cited confidentiality requirements in the state Equal Employment Opportunity rules.
“I was advised by two different lawyers at two different times that were confidentiality requirements concerning the victim’s allegations,” Cammarano said. “To the best of my knowledge, no one ever told the governor.”
Cammarano said he follows legal advice, even if he disagrees with it.
“To me, something may seem very logical, but if they’re telling me not to do it, there has to be a legal reason for it. And I have to assume that they’re giving me accurate advice, which I believe that they believe they were,” Cammarano said. “Yeah, there are times where I wish I had told the governor.”
Cammarano said he had learned in December, when he was serving as an unpaid adviser to Murphy’s transition office, that Alvarez had been accused of sexually assaulting a campaign volunteer in April 2017 and that the victim was serving on a transition committee.
Cammarano was told about the case by transition aide Justin Braz, who declined to identify Brennan, at her request. Cammarano – as well as transition counsel Raj Parikh in a December memo – said that they thought Braz wasn’t authorized to tell them anything about the incident.
He was also told that criminal charges were imminent, but prosecutors later the same day decided not to pursue the case.
Alvarez was the deputy director for personnel for Murphy’s transition office, but Cammarano said a decision was made to revoke his hiring authority after Brennan’s then-anonymous allegations were reported to the transition in December.
“Counsel told us that we should take action to ensure that Mr. Alvarez was not in a position to retaliate against the victim, whomever she might be, by limiting his hiring responsibilities and his ability to reject any resumes submitted to the transition by anyone would could be the alleged victim,” he said.
“We made it a blanket policy with him because we didn’t know who the victim could have been,” Cammarano said.
Lawmakers said they had seen no evidence of any limits put on Alvarez’s hiring authority in the documents they had received from the transition office. Cammarano said it would have been up the transition counsel, Parikh, to follow up on that.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said hiring people was Alvarez’s function in transition and said it’s “a little bit disturbing” there didn’t appear to be paperwork in his personnel file noting he’d been forbidden from participating in hiring decisions.
“To me, this is kind of astounding, really,” Weinberg said. “I did not know that Mr. Alvarez was banned from hiring. And yet there was no follow-through.”
“I think there are some basic processes there that nobody seemed to be in charge of. Sort of floated between transition to the actual government,” she said.
Before Tuesday’s testimony, it was believed that the Murphy administration had directed Alvarez to leave his Schools Development Authority in early June, via a message delivered by Charlie McKenna, who was then the SDA’s executive director, a holdover in a job he began under Gov. Chris Christie.
McKenna told the committee he thought it was unusual that Platkin asked him to deliver the message. McKenna didn't know the reason for the request, except that it had to do with something that happened in the campaign.
"I thought the entire way that they did it was a little awkward. I mean, I don't know why they included the Christie guy in the middle of that, but they did," said McKenna said, who said he felt he "lacked a certain amount of gravitas" to tell "a Murphy guy" he was out of a job.
McKenna said Alvarez was "pretty calm about it" and that since Alvarez got a haircut a few days later, he assumed his job search was underway.
"He seemed to understand the situation," McKenna said. "He said that he had not done anything wrong but that he didn't want to put the governor in a bad position so that he would look for a job."
McKenna said every Governor's Office is uniquely structured but that in the two years he served as chief counsel to Christie, it was his job to deliver bad news. He said Christie would have wanted to have been told about the allegations but that staffers have a balancing act between resolving issues themselves or taking them to the boss.
"I have to say that every governor is different, but if the governor that I worked for, if I didn't tell him this, I would still be feeling the pain today," McKenna said.
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