It’s still too early to tell what consequences Gov. Phil Murphy and his team do or do not face as a result of the Special Committee investigation into the hiring of Al Alvarez, but the testimony of Katie Brennan has already put the governor under some amount of scrutiny.
Brennan, who is chief of staff at the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, has accused Alvarez of sexually assaulting her in April 2017, when they were both working on Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign. She reported the alleged assault to multiple authorities, including the Jersey City Police Department, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office and now-senior members of Murphy’s administration.
Her testimony before the Select Committee on Tuesday revived questions about why Jonathan Berkon, an attorney for Murphy’s campaign that now works for the Murphy-aligned non-profit New Direction New Jersey, responded to a June email Brennan sent directly to the governor requesting to discuss a “sensitive matter” related to the campaign.
In October, Murphy said he forwarded the matter to Berkon because it was campaign related. At a press conference Wednesday, he stood by those statements but added that he had also brought in his chief counsel, Matt Platkin.
“When she reached out and mentioned there was matter related to the campaign it was a natural act for me to forward that to not only my counsel in the governor’s office but also to Jon Berkon who was campaign counsel,” Murphy said. “That was a fairly natural, easy, logical step for me to take.”
Brennan testified that she told Platkin about the alleged assault this March at a restaurant in Jersey City
Murphy copied his scheduling team onto the June email chain and responded by telling Brennan “We know you well. Hang in. We’re on it.”
Berkon called her not long after and informed her that Alvarez would be leaving the administration.
Alvarez did not resign until Oct. 2, when Wall Street Journal reporter Kate King contacted him seeking comment on Brennan’s allegations, which had not been made public at the time.
In October, Murphy said he first became aware of the allegations against Alvarez on Oct. 2, and he stood by that statement when pressed on Berkon’s call to Brennan Wednesday.
“Not only do I maintain it, it is Unequivocally the case. It is the truth. I did not know the specifics of what happened to Katie until, I believe, Oct. 2nd,” Murphy said. “That is a fact.”
The Select Committee will almost certainly put Murphy’s statements on the matter under a microscope. The body’s next hearing is on Dec. 18. A list of witnesses for that hearing has not yet been finalized.
The committee will likely call for both Platkin and Berkon to appear at some point down the line, and panel could even call for their appearance on Dec. 18, though that pace would be something of a departure from how these committees normally operate.
In all likelihood, the committee will call Justin Braz — a friend of Brennan who was among the first she told of the assault — before calling Platkin or Berkon.
The possible consequences of the inquiry will become clearer then, but they remain opaque for the moment.
“It’s much too early to understand the full political ramifications of this investigation,” Rowan University political science professor Ben Dworkin said. “This was the first day of testimony in what’s obviously going to be multiple days of hearings, so predicting any kind of fallout before we know what is going to be revealed is simply premature.”
The body may eventually work its way directly to Murphy. Committee co-chair Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin wouldn’t rule out calling for Murphy to appear before the committee when asked Tuesday.
Murphy stopped short of saying he would accede to such a request but said he and his administration were cooperating with the legislature’s investigation.
“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, but there’re some notions in some quarters that we’re not cooperating, that is completely, 1,000% false,” Murphy said. “I’m not going to say to you publicly what is not the case privately, and that is that we respect the process that the legislators have put in place. We have to call balls and strikes, and it must be solutions-focused and not political. And as long as it is, count us in.”