Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday announced his administration was launching an independent investigation into the hiring of former Schools Development Authority chief of staff Albert Alvarez, who resigned on Oct. 2 after the Wall Street Journal reached out for comment about sexual assault allegations leveled at the former Murphy campaign staffer by Katie Brennan.
Former State Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero, who served as chief counsel, chief of staff and attorney general for Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, will conduct the investigation. He said in a statement that he expects to be done by the end of the year, if not sooner.
“We will not follow the lead of Washington. This will be a real investigation designed to uncover the truth of what happened wherever it leads,” Murphy said. “We’re not playing politics. We owe the people of New Jersey transparency, and that’s exactly what we’ll provide.”
Murphy said he will have to consider firing or otherwise censuring members of his administration based on the results of Verniero’s investigation.
The governor repeatedly sought to contrast the newly-launched investigation to the five-day-long FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations against now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh that was ordered by Congress in late September.
But, Murphy stopped short of backing legislative hearings into the matter sought by the state’s Republicans.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin called for a review into the handling of Brennan’s allegations, but Democrats so far have stopped short of calling for an investigation into the matter.
“I think these are very meaningful steps that we’re taking right now, so I would hope we don’t get politics,” Murphy said when asked about the possibility of legislative hearings into Alvarez’s hiring. “This is one of these moments where folks could either grandstand or they could call balls and strikes and try to figure out how do we make New Jersey better for victims of sexual assault.”
Murphy maintained that he had not been made aware of Brennan’s allegations until Oct. 2, when Alvarez resigned, even though senior members of his administration, including chief of staff Pete Cammarano, reportedly knew about the allegations for months.
Murphy said he was not made aware of Alvarez being asked to leave the administration roughly three months before Brennan began seeking to publicize her accusations.
The governor defended their keeping him out of the loop, citing concerns over confidentiality and the a desire to not unduly impact any investigation into Brennan’s allegations.
He could have heard Brennan’s story from the woman herself after she reached out to him via email in June, but Murphy deferred the email to Jonathan Berkon, a former Murphy campaign lawyer who now works for the Murphy-aligned 501c4 New Direction New Jersey.
Murphy said Berkon, and not a member of the front office, responded to Brennan because she sought a conversation over what the governor said she called a sensitive matter relating to the campaign.
He said he was advised against having one-off meetings both generally and with Brennan specifically because such meetings lead to “uneven results.” He said he didn’t remember who advised him against such meetings.
“I have been accused both as a candidate, in transition and in government of everybody having my cell phone. Tammy and I have been reminded time and time again that just doing one-off meetings with folks – for good bad or otherwise – creates an unevenness in the organization, and we’ve been reminded you have professionals who do this for a living, you have processes that are in place, stick to them.”
In any case, Brenna’s allegations and Alvarez’s sudden departure aren’t stopping Murphy from leaving the country for a trade mission to Israel and Germany Monday night.
“I’ve not considered not going. We’re going on the trip,” Murphy said. “The timing was baked, I think, three or four months ago.”