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 Associated Press does not typically disclose the names of alleged sexual assault victims, but does in cases in which the person comes forward publicly, as Brennan has done.
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.
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.
In a statement, Murphy said the report revealed “hard truths” and that he wishes his staff had informed him sooner about the allegations.
“Although we cannot turn back the clock, we must endeavor to make New Jersey a better place for survivors of sexual assault,” Murphy said.
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 governor said he agrees with the report’s recommendations.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg is co-chairing the legislative committee probing the issue and was critical of the report. In a statement she said it falls short of the “comprehensive investigation” Murphy promised.
“There continues to be too many unanswered questions, too many (inconsistencies) and contradictions, and too many people unable to provide a true accounting,” she said.
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.
Brennan issued a statement later Wednesday, saying that the report showed the Murphy transition had a “glaring personnel problem” and lacked accountability and effective policies.
“Confidentiality is used to stop action and silence victims, not to encourage them to report sexual misconduct,” she said.