New boss kept in dark about why accused rapist was leaving state job
TRENTON — The chief executive officer who took over the state Schools Development Authority in mid-summer wasn’t told that her chief of staff had been twice asked to leave his position over allegations he had raped a fellow worker on Gov. Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign in 2017.
Lizette Delgado-Polanco, who is also vice chairwoman of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee, told the New Jersey Legislative Select Oversight Committee she knew Al Alvarez would be leaving but didn’t know the actual reason for that until he submitted his resignation Oct. 2.
“He said to me that they’re going to write the story and that they’re alleging that he raped this woman who he had had – this is what he said to me – a consensual relationship with. She was married and now she’s claiming rape,” Delgado-Polanco said.
“I’ve worked with Al on different occasions, so this is so out of character,” she said. “I felt like somebody threw a glass of cold water in my face because I couldn’t believe what was coming out of his mouth.”
Delgado-Polanco said she was told in mid-July by chief of staff Pete Cammarano in her job interview that Alvarez would be leaving. She had inquired whether Alvarez would be disappointed that he didn’t get a promotion to CEO. He didn’t tell her why Alvarez was leaving, and she didn’t inquire.
“It would have been nice. I would have appreciated. But I did not know anything,” she said. “I did not know.”
Delgado-Polanco said Alvarez had told him in August he was leaving for other reasons.
“He told me it was quality of life issues, that the commute was killing him, that he needed to spend more time with his family and that he had a better job offer up in Bergen County, where he’s from,” she said.
Alvarez had been asked in March by Cammarano to leave state employment, after Katie Brennan, the chief of staff at the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, told administration officials she had been sexually assaulted by him in April 2017.
Alvarez was again asked to leave his job in June by Charlie McKenna, then the CEO of the SDA, at the direction of chief counsel Matt Platkin.
Instead he stayed on the job until early October, when the Wall Street Journal asked for comment for an article it was preparing about Brennan’s allegations. Along the way, Alvarez even got a pay raise, from $140,000 to $170,000, in late August.
Delgado-Polanco said a number of people got raises as she restructured job responsibilities.
“It wasn’t for Al. I knew Al was leaving,” she said. “It was really to lure a better candidate for the position, a qualified candidate for a position that would come in and help me lead this agency.”
The job is now held by Roy Garcia, a former colleague of Delgado-Polanco at the Service Employees International Union 1199.
Four people testified before the special legislative committee Tuesday.
The first was deputy chief counsel Parimal Garg. He said Brennan, a personal friend for two years, told him at Murphy’s inaugural ball in January 2018 that she wanted to tell him “about a matter of serious wrongdoing by a senior administration official.”
Garg said they agreed to talk by phone later in the week but that Brennan told him two days later that she decided not to tell him at that time. Michael Critchley, an attorney for the legislative committee, said he should have more aggressively pursued the matter at that point.
“She may be your friend. I’m not disagreeing with that,” Critchley said. “But now you are deputy chief counsel. You have a public duty to inquire about things of importance. You’re advising the governor. You have to make judgment calls.”
“We didn’t have any specifics as to what that serious wrongdoing might entail,” Garg said.
“I know. That’s the problem. You had to find out. Because you had explosive words – ‘serious wrongdoing,’” Critchley said.
Two months later, Brennan called Garg again and at that time, after having already told Platkin, informed him of the allegations. He talked about it with Platkin, who said there was no further action Garg needed to take.
The next person to testify was campaign attorney Jonathan Berkon, who said he learned of the allegations in June and believed the administration would ensure Alvarez left his state job.
“I was certainly of the view that someone who had this kind of allegation against them, it would not be tenable to remain in the government,” Berkon said. “Mr. Platkin agreed with me.”
Berkon said it wasn’t a matter for the campaign, though the alleged rape occurred in 2017, because by mid-2018, the campaign no longer had employees or a way to discipline or terminate Alvarez. Murphy’s ethics counsel, Heather Taylor, had informed Brennan there was nothing the administration could do because the alleged incident happened before they were state workers.
“I frankly don’t quite understand that point of view because there is nothing for the campaign to do. He was an employee of the administration, not an employee of the campaign,” Berkon said.
Berkon said he’d have been surprised that Alvarez was still working for the state on Aug. 1, let alone Oct. 2.
Lawmakers criticized Berkon for not following up and for how all sides of Murphy’s campaign, transition and administration handled the matter.
“The governor sends you an email directly. I would suspect that that imposes on you some sense of responsibility to go from A to Z, and not until you get to Z and it’s fully completed or closed do you feel that you should walk away from this,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “Not with an assumption because that would not make a very good attorney to just close a case on an assumption.”
“This is one of the worst things that can happen to a woman, and to have it treated so lightly by so-called responsible people, it’s just very offensive,” said state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson.
“You as the campaign (counsel) decided there was no action and no investigation. You just acted as the intermediary. And the state said there was no action they could take because it was a campaign matter. So somehow Katie Brennan was caught in a very interesting quagmire,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen.
“I think that to all of us here, it’s just heartbreaking to hear that at every single level and every step, there was just no follow-up,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, who said “nobody ever wanted to take ownership” of resolving the problem.
The other person to testify was Jose Lozano, who was executive director of Murphy’s transition office, said he was told by Alvarez that he’d been hired as chief of staff at the SDA but didn’t know who had make the decision to hire him, a month after learning of the rape allegations.
Lozano said he was tasked with running the transition’s day-to-day operations and recruiting the 24 Cabinet members but not hiring for sub-Cabinet positions.