Fired health official: I was asked to do COVID-19 test as a political favor
TRENTON — New Jersey's state police chief asked a former health official to get a relative of a top Murphy administration aide tested for COVID-19 as a favor while the tests were in short supply, a lawsuit claims.
Chris Neuwirth said he was fired from his job as assistant health commissioner last month in retaliation for refusing to do the test. He is asking for the court to reinstate him to his old job and award back pay and damages.
The suit, filed Tuesday in state Superior Court in Mercer County, alleges that in April, state police superintendent Col. Pat Callahan called Neuwirth to ask that he go to the home of a relative of George Helmy, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy's chief of staff, to administer a coronavirus test.
The lawsuit said Neuwirth did not want to participate in the request because he found it “unethical, unlawful, incompatible with public policy, a misuse of governmental resources and/or misuse of power.”
The suit said that Neuwirth told Callahan he would look into it, “fully understanding that the request for the ‘favor’ was coming from top-level people within the Governor’s inner circle.”
Neuwirth did not do the test for the unidentified relative, according to the suit. Instead he returned home after speaking to Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, who told him not to do the test.
Neuwirth then initiated an ethics complaint and was soon let go from his position in retaliation, the suit claims.
Murphy and Callahan were asked about the suit at an unrelated news conference Tuesday. Murphy declined to comment on his and Callahan's behalf about the details of the case. The governor said Helmy and Callahan had been “heroes” throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I literally don't know where we'd be in this state without Pat Callahan and George Helmy,” Murphy said. “I cannot even fathom what our state would look like without them.”
Neuwirth's lawsuit also touches on allegations raised in news reports that he was fired over a second job he had at a consulting firm. Neuwirth said he disclosed work he did with the state health department's ethics liaison, who indicated there was no conflict of interest.
Murphy had been asked earlier about Neuwirth's departure from state government but declined to comment, except to say: “It’s par for the course that you’re not supposed to have another source of income.”
The governor pushed a “falsehood” that hurt his reputation, Neuwirth said in the lawsuit.
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