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Murphy staff mishandled rape allegation from the start

Governor Phil Murphy and cabinet officials announce steps to support school communities on February 20, 2018 in Trenton, NJ. Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office.
(Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)

TRENTON — With questions about how the Murphy administration went about hiring, it turns out they weren’t very good at firing people, either.

Trenton insiders say it would be laughable, if it weren’t so egregious.

It was further embarrassment for Gov. Phil Murphy, who continues to be criticized for what many believe is an unprecedented level of dysfunction in his administration.

Murphy’s chief of staff, Pete Cammarano, told a special legislative committee that when he became aware of the rape allegations against Al Alvarez in March, he told Alvarez to leave his job at the Schools Development Authority. Alvarez didn’t leave, and Cammarano admitted he never followed up on the matter.

Apparently, no one did.

Alvarez remained in his job until October, and only left after the Wall Street Journal went public with the rape allegations made by fellow Murphy staffer Katie Brennan.

At one point, someone in the Murphy administration sent in a holdover from the Chris Christie administration to tell Alvarez to get out.

Charlie McKenna, then the SDA’s executive director, said they never told him why he was speaking to Alvarez, and it was awkward.

“I don’t know why they included the Christie guy in the middle of that, but they did,” McKenna testified.

Lawmakers holding the hearings into the matter were stunned by what they were hearing. Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, could not get her head around how Alvarez was allowed to stay in his job for months after the governor’s most senior staffer told him to get out.

“I mean, you’re the chief of staff … I don’t understand the level of dysfunction that takes six, seven months for it to come to a close,” Ruiz said.

The hearings, however, showed the situation could have been resolved even before Murphy began his term.

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Efforts to limit Alvarez’s role in the administration actually began in December 2017, before Murphy took office. Before being named chief of staff, Cammarano was an adviser to Murphy’s transition team. He admitted he was told about the credible rape allegation by the transition’s legal counsel. At that time, Alvarez was serving as the deputy director of personnel for the transition.

Rather than fire him, Cammarano said Alvarez’s hiring authority was curbed.

“Counsel told us we should take action to ensure that Mr. Alvarez was not in a position to retaliate against the victim,” Cammarano testified.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, was flabbergasted by what she was hearing.

“This is kind of astounding, really,” Weinberg said, and called it “disturbing” that there was nothing in Alvarez’s personnel file noting his authority to hire had been curbed. She also wondered aloud who among the governor’s staff was even in charge, then posited, “Nobody seemed to be in charge.”

The buzz around the State House after the hearing was a mixture of disbelief and concern. It shows one of two things, one lobbyist told me, “dysfunction or incompetence.”

Another longtime insider corrected him. “It’s both,” she said.

No one I talked to expected things to get better anytime soon, and more and more State House observers are suggesting Murphy may not recover from a scandal that could have been prevented by the people he trusted most to shape his new administration.

Eric Scott is Vice President, Senior Political Director and Director of Special Projects for New Jersey 101.5. He anchors “New Jersey’s First News” and weekday morning newscasts from 5 to 10 a.m., in addition to hosting a monthly Town Hall series.

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