Tempers and exhaustion rise as Murphy hiring inquiry continues
TRENTON — A legislative panel investigating how Gov. Phil Murphy’s team handled allegations of sexual assault lodged by one senior administration official against another heard another marathon round of testimony Thursday – and after 21 hours across four days, it seems exhaustion is creeping in.
Among the things learned Thursday:
- Chief of Staff Pete Cammarano said there was a point in time when he was informed Al Alvarez, the Schools Development Authority chief of staff accused of an April 2017 sexual assault, had found a new job as directed and would be leaving. It took more than six months, and a Wall Street Journal inquiry, for him to resign in October.
- Cammarano said he didn't attempt to help Alvarez find a new job after telling him in March he should leave. In an application for unemployment benefits, according to NJ.com, Alvarez suggested he was promised assistance.
- Cammarano said that when chief counsel Matt Platkin recused from the matter in March 2018, citing relationships with both Alvarez and his accuser, Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency chief of staff Katie Brennan, that was limited solely to an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint filed.
- Heather Taylor, the ethics counsel in the Governor’s Office since 2014, said that EEO review was conducted by the Office of the Attorney General, which was the usual course. She said it was the first time she knows of in which a complaint wasn’t investigated due to a lack of jurisdiction – it happened when neither Alvarez nor Brennan worked for the state and didn’t happen on state property.
- Taylor said that when she was told the matter didn’t fall under EEO rules, she suggested that perhaps the Office of the Attorney General could hire outside counsel to investigate but was told no. The AG’s office suggested that perhaps the Murphy campaign could investigate.
- The Attorney General’s Office determined on March 27 that EEO rules didn’t apply. Taylor told Platkin a day later. That information wasn’t relayed to Brennan until April 24, after Brennan inquired with Platkin to say she hadn’t heard anything.
- Taylor said that in her April 24 conversation with Platkin, in preparation for her talk with Brennan, “I believe Matt Platkin asked the question whether what he thought her next steps would be or whether she would go to the press.”
Cammarano, who is leaving his post of chief of staff next week, endured often withering criticism.
Sen. Fred Madden, D-Gloucester, said part of Cammarano’s job is to forecast potential problems, make sure things are done appropriately and ensure people in certain positions are protected. That’s why he said it doesn’t make sense that Cammarano didn’t ensure Alvarez left his job, as directed in March.
“It was incredibly serious,” Madden said. “And you tell this individual you need to part company with the state, and he’s still there almost three months later and you do nothing. You just say, ‘Well, the attorney is now handling it.’ That’s just amazing.”
“There are times where I wonder if I should have informed the governor,” Cammarano said. “There are times I wonder if I should have pushed back harder. There are times when I wonder if I should have just fired Mr. Alvarez and run the risk of being sued for firing someone for an accusation.”
Hudson County prosecutors investigated Brennan’s allegations but decided in December 2017 not to bring charges.
Cammarano acknowledged to committee lawyer Rosemary Alito that he didn’t go to anyone and say they should not hire Alvarez, although he disagreed with her suggestion that he could have done so without telling anyone the underlying reason.
And then things got more heated, when Alito tried to make the point that Cammarano took no efforts to prevent Alvarez from being hired but he wouldn’t concur.
“Did you personally, Mr. Cammarano, make any efforts to prevent the hiring of Mr. Alvarez?” Alito said.
“If you recall during my testimony, I did say I didn’t make the decision to hire Al or not,” he said.
“That wasn’t my question. My question was whether you made any efforts to prevent the hiring of Mr. Alvarez,” she said. “You could do that by speaking to someone. You could do that by trying to find out who’s going to make the decision.”
“I did not speak to anybody about the accusation because of the advice I have” from the transition’s counsel, Raj Parikh, Cammarano said.
“All right, so the answer to my question is no,” Alito said. “You did not make any efforts to prevent the hiring of Mr. Alvarez. Correct?”
“I’m not sure that’s correct,” Cammarano said. “I’m not sure.”
“You may have?”
“I’m not sure where you’re drawing that conclusion, so this may be one of those things we have to agree to disagree. I don’t see how you draw that conclusion.”
Alito said she’s not drawing a conclusion, just asking “a pretty simple question” she wanted answered.
“With all due respect, Mr. Cammarano, you’re just not answering my question. And it’s a pretty straightforward and simple question,” Alito said. “I didn’t ask you whether you had authority to hire Mr. Alvarez. I didn’t ask whether you did hire Mr. Alvarez. I asked you: Did you personally take any action to prevent the hiring of Mr. Alvarez?”
“I did not have a role in it,” Cammarano said.
“And so that means you did not take any actions to prevent his hiring,” Alito said.
“This is one of those things we can go on forever,” he said. “If that’s what you want to conclude, that’s fine.”
“Obviously you don’t want to answer my question,” Alito said. “But we assume from your testimony that you took no action to prevent this hiring.”
“OK,” Cammarano said, before the conversation finally moved on.
Fifteen minutes later, Alito was done asking questions. Cammarano requested a break before the committee’s other two outside lawyers could have their turns. The break was granted – and during it, Cammarano left the Statehouse and promised to return to finish another day.
“I don’t want to concern anyone. He’s perfectly fine,” said Chris Porrino, a former state attorney general representing Cammarano and other Governor’s Office officials. “But it’s a long day of 18 or 19 people asking questions that, frankly, just listening to it I’m getting tired.”
“There aren’t physical or medical reasons. I think it’s a long day, and the witness is tired,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said she understood, though the committee’s attorneys appeared a little more begrudging in their consent.
“I agree with you. It’s been a long day,” Weinberg said. “He has been here answering questions from everybody for five hours. He is entitled now for a respite from this. I do not want an exhausted witness, and I’m not saying that in any pejorative way.”
The next hearing is scheduled for next Friday. Lawmakers intend to complete Cammarano’s testimony, then call Platkin.