Murphy wishes he had known sooner about rape accusation
TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy's transition team was quick to hire an employee accused of sexual assault despite the claim against him, a report commissioned by the governor found Wednesday.
The 75-page report written by former state Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero and members of his law firm stopped short of any harsh criticisms of the administration's handling of the allegation. It comes more than three months after allegations against Albert Alvarez, the chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, came to light in a newspaper article.
Katie Brennan, the chief of staff of the state's housing finance agency, says Alvarez assaulted her in 2017 while they worked to get Murphy elected. Alvarez resigned from his position in October when the allegations emerged.
He has denied Brennan's claims, and the Hudson and Middlesex county prosecutor's offices declined to bring criminal charges.
The allegations have led to an ongoing legislative probe, a lawsuit from Brennan against the state claiming her complaints were mishandled, as well as the two criminal investigations that did not result in charges against Alvarez.
Responding to the report on Wednesday, Murphy said he wishes he had been "informed earlier" about the allegations against Alvarez.
"As members of my staff have previously testified, they regret not telling me sooner as well. I fully respect the determinations made by two separate law enforcement entities regarding Mr. Alvarez, but once the decision was made to separate him from state government, it should have had been handled more swiftly and decisively," Murphy said.
"The report contains hard truths that my Administration must fully accept and also highlights structural issues with gubernatorial transitions that merit reform," Murphy added. "I agree with all the corrective actions Justice Verniero recommends, and I will work collaboratively with the Legislature and others to ensure their adoption."
His full statement is posted below.
The report faulted the transition of the incoming Democratic governor for hiring Alvarez without looking more into the allegation against him. The transition team became aware of some but not all of the details of Brennan's allegation in December 2017, according to the report and legislative testimony. Instead of conducting an internal probe into the allegations, the report notes, Alvarez's hiring process seemed to go forward unimpeded.
"Under usual circumstances, that seamless progression would not raise questions. In the case of Mr. Alvarez, however, that progression should have been halted, or at least slowed, to allow the transition office to take the additional steps noted in this Report."
Despite finding some fault, it is hardly a scathing document.
It does not, for example, call for any discipline against anyone specifically and notes that transition officials "appeared to have acted in good faith to address the allegation at the time" despite shortcomings.
It also did not turn up who hired Alvarez, which has been the intense subject of the legislative inquiry into Murphy's handling of the allegation. The report says it's unclear who hired Alvarez.
It also notes Murphy himself was not made aware of the allegations until the Wall Street Journal approached the administration for comment about them in October, about nine months after Alvarez was hired. That's consistent with what Murphy has said throughout.
The report does make several recommendations, including that lawmakers should consider allowing for major party candidates for governor to make transition plans during their campaigns.
It also recommends legislation specifically stating gubernatorial transition employees are state workers. Under current law, the report says it's not clear all the transition's employees were in fact state workers.
The document comes several hours after the latest legislative hearing, at which lawmakers pronounced their amazement that it's still unclear who hired Alvarez, and after Murphy announced expanded ethics guidelines. Those guidelines will now cover applicants as well as state employees, among other changes.
In a statement, Brennan's attorney expressed disappointment the administration is not addressing her lawsuit's concerns about a policy requirement that accusers and the accused not disclose details of their cases.
"Requiring survivors to keep their complaints confidential is a gross violation of their constitutional and statutory rights," attorney Katy McClure said.
"When this matter was first brought to my attention in October, I ordered a full investigation to determine what happened and to strengthen the system for survivors of sexual assault moving forward. Sexual misconduct in any form is intolerable and must be treated by this Administration and every organization with the utmost gravity.
“With former Supreme Court Justice Verniero’s report, we now have more information about how decisions were made and the role current policy and procedures played in those decisions. The report contains hard truths that my Administration must fully accept and also highlights structural issues with gubernatorial transitions that merit reform. I agree with all the corrective actions Justice Verniero recommends, and I will work collaboratively with the Legislature and others to ensure their adoption.
“Knowing what I know now, I wish I was informed earlier by my team about Ms. Brennan’s allegations. As members of my staff have previously testified, they regret not telling me sooner as well. I fully respect the determinations made by two separate law enforcement entities regarding Mr. Alvarez, but once the decision was made to separate him from state government, it should have had been handled more swiftly and decisively.
“From the beginning, my Administration has cooperated fully in every conceivable way, both with Justice Verniero and the New Jersey Legislature’s Joint Legislative Select Oversight Committee. We have openly facilitated access to our senior staff and team and voluntarily shared internal communications and documents in response to every request made by the Legislature. There have been seven full days of hearings, including 13 witnesses and over 40 hours of fact witness testimony.
“We must now all commit to the recommendations outlined by Justice Verniero, Attorney General Grewal, and Director Patel. I also look forward to reviewing the recommendations set forth by the Legislature’s Joint Oversight Committee. Although we cannot turn back the clock, we must endeavor to make New Jersey a better place for survivors of sexual assault, and do everything we can to ensure their voices are heard as they seek justice.”