A report released Monday by the law firm of former New Jersey Attorney General and State Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero into who hired Al Alvarez, a former Murphy campaign staffer accused of sexually assaulting another campaign staffer, found it is still not clear, and remains a lingering question which a legislative oversight committee and other state officials have been seeking an answer to for months.
The 73-page report, ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy in October 2018 after the allegations against Alvarez were made public, said that the transition team’s vetting of any candidates for the administration was “adequate” given the fast time frame between the election and Murphy becoming governor, but the document acknowledges many limitations hampering the team’s ability to investigate the allegations.
Verniero and his law firm, Sills, Cummis & Gross PC, compiled the taxpayer-funded report.
“Transition officials appeared to have acted in good faith to address the allegation at the time, albeit with the shortcomings identified,” Verniero said.
Katie Brennan alleges that she was sexually assaulted by Alvarez in April 2017, at her apartment in Jersey City, during which time she worked as a staffer for the Murphy campaign.
Brennan, who was hired as chief of staff of New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, also states that she tried recurrently to report her allegations against Alvarez, however they were repeatedly ignored.
Alvarez was hired for the transition team and later as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, where he was urged to leave his post on more than one occasion, but did not do so until a Wall Street Journal reporter contacted him in October 2018 about the allegations.
Murphy says he did not know about the allegations until the Wall Street Journal’s article, despite email exchanges between him and Brennan. The report suggests that Murphy had no involvement in vetting or hiring Alvarez.
A legislative oversight panel has been prodding the administration to figure out who hired Alvarez.
Lynn Haynes, later deputy chief of staff at the governor’s office, was the most recent to testify on Feb. 5 and said that one of three people could have been involved in the hiring: Chief Counsel Matt Platkin, Chief of Staff Pete Cammarano or transition team Executive Director Jose Lozano.
According to the report, the chief counsel “flatly denied” having any involvement in the hiring; the chief of staff said “he might have signed off orally” on the hiring, but could not remember; and the transition executive director “disclaims any substantive hiring role.”
Investigating the allegations was difficult because the identity of the accuser was not known and because there were hundreds of campaign volunteers, the alleged incident also reportedly occurred outside the workplace, and because the purported conduct did not happen while Alvarez and Brennan were state employees, Verniero said.
“Reforms should spell out more clearly that an administrative investigation or review can be authorized, as deemed necessary by the appropriate [Division of Equal Opportunity Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action] officer, even when a complainant is unknown or the alleged conduct predates state employment,” reads the report.
To remedy that suggestion, the Murphy administration unveiled a series of proposed changes to its sexual misconduct policies which it would have to adopt. Chief among them is a proposal to change the policies so they would extend to the gubernatorial transition office in addition to just state employees.
Mamta Patel, director of the statewide Division of Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action, released the policies Tuesday evening and just hours before President Donald Trump gave his second State of the Union address.
The new policies put in place “strong language” on sexual misconduct to include “sexual physical contact that involves any form of coercion, force, or lack of consent, such as sexual assault.”
Verniero concluded that the Murphy transition team should have taken additional investigatory steps, including interviews of both Alvarez and Justin Braz, whom Brennan said she told about the assault soon after it allegedly occurred.
“The lack of an administrative review denied both the complainant and the accused employee an avenue to determine the facts and a process for evaluating a serious allegation,” Verniero said. “Whether the decision not to conduct an investigation was made during the transition period or after the start of the administration, decision-makers appear to have been acting, with the advice of counsel, under their best judgment and understanding of existing law.”
“Nonetheless, to the extent that transition or governmental officials felt unable to act either because the identity of the alleged victim was unknown or the alleged conduct predated state service, the system failed and is in need of reform,” the report adds.
“The report contains hard truths that my administration must fully accept and also highlights structural issues with gubernatorial transitions that merit reform,” Murphy said Wednesday afternoon in a statement. “Knowing what I know now, I wish I was informed earlier by my team about Brennan’s allegations. As members of my staff have previously testified, they regret not telling me sooner as well.”
Katy McClure, a lawyer for Brennan, in a Wednesday morning statement criticized the proposals for not including recommendations on changes to the state government’s non-disclosure policy, which Brennan in her suit against the Murphy administration alleges is being used to silence her.
“Until the State expressly renounces its current strict confidentiality directive, state employees who are victims of sexual misconduct will continue to face discipline, up to termination, if they speak about any aspect of the state’s investigation into their complaints of sexual misconduct,” McClure said.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, heavily criticized the report, saying it failed to meet the standards of a “reasonable investigation” and does nothing more than “exonerate” those involved in the scandal.
“There continues to be too many unanswered questions, too many inconsistencies and contradictions, and too many people unable to provide a true accounting,” Weinberg said Wednesday in a statement from the Senate Democrats office.
“We still do not know who hired Alvarez, why he did not leave state employment when he was told to do so by high-ranking members of the administration, and what was the supposed decision-making process that allowed this situation to go unresolved for so long,” Weinberg added.