With roughly nine months remaining in his first term, Gov. Phil Murphy has made no move to nominate permanent commissioners to three key cabinet posts, leaving acting commissioners in some of the most prominent positions in state government with no apparent plan to replace them.
Other nominations have stalled, leaving the governor’s picks — including one of the administration’s most visible officials — with asterisks next to their names for months or even years in a state where Democrats hold a clear legislative majority.
Nearly three years after being nominated by Murphy to head the New Jersey State Police, Col. Patrick J. Callahan remains the body’s acting superintendent, and it’s unclear when that’ll change.
Murphy on Wednesday declined to say what was holding up Callahan’s confirmation, intercepting a question posed to the State Police official, a staple at coronavirus briefings now for more than a year.
“Pat is an extraordinary leader. Among the very most impressive leaders I’ve ever worked with, and I remain confident, while it may have taken a long time, this ship will ultimately get into port,” Murphy said at the day’s virus briefing. “I can’t tell you when, but I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Callahan, a member of the State Police since 1995 who served as recovery bureau chief in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, has faced scarce criticism during his tenure, even after a Newsweek report last June alleged he intervened to block a 2017 sexual assault investigation against Ian Schweizer, the son of former Morris County Municipal Utilities Authority Executive Director Glenn Schweizer.
The charges against Schweizer were filed then swiftly dropped, and six state troopers in Sussex County filed civil suits against top officials with the NJSP, claiming they were punished for pursuing the charges.
The saga also spurred a labor grievance from the State Troopers Fraternal Association over a trooper’s transfer and a fight between prosecutors and troopers in Sussex County, the latter launching an ethics complaint that appears to have gone nowhere.
Published just as New Jersey was tamping down its first wave of COVID-19 infections, the story drew headlines but left little impact in Trenton, but the legislature’s most powerful Democrat now says it’s a major hurdle to his confirmation.
“There was an investigation. You saw the Newsweek story. He would have to answer questions on that right now, and he can’t,” Senate President Steve Sweeney told the New Jersey Globe Wednesday. “Once that’s resolved, then we’ll have a conversation about Colonel Callahan.”
He denied the allegations a day after the story aired.
“Unfortunately, as we all well know, sometimes when you reach a certain point in your career, baseless accusations are leveled at you,” Callahan said at a June 17 virus briefing. “I knew that signing up.”
But by the time it was published, Callahan had been Murphy’s acting head of the State Police for a little more than two years, and he’d held the position before being nominated by the Democratic governor. Gov. Chris Christie put him into the same position in October 2017.
The nomination didn’t move then because lawmakers were “hearing different concerns from state troopers at the time,” Sweeney said.
Wayne Blanchard, President of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, wasn’t able to give clarity to those concerns.
“I really can’t get into the heads of those members,” he said. “I’m not in stations or units every day around the watercooler participating in gossip-laden conversations.”
Blanchard said Callahan and the union have “worked well together in his time as acting superintendent,” but it’s been a sometimes-rocky relationship.
The STFA publicly sided against Callahan after the Newsweek story hit with deposition transcripts that showed Callahan told Sussex County prosecutors about a corruption probe sought by the Troopers involved.
Last year, the union named him in a suit that sought to block the release of disciplinary records for current and former troopers dating back 20 years
Murphy hasn’t nominated permanent replacements for departed cabinet members
While Callahan’s nomination may well be doomed by the case, Murphy has been slow to install permanent heads in other cabinet-level posts.
The reasons for the delays are myriad, Sweeney said, and Democratic infighting that defined the first two years of Murphy’s tenure as governor wasn’t among them.
“There’s not any kind of grudge match here, I can tell you that,” he said.
Some confirmations have stalled for a lack of nominees.
Former Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe announced her intent to retire on Nov. 30, 2020. Almost four months later, the governor has not identified a permanent replacement. Shawn LaTourette, a deputy environmental commissioner, is now the department’s acting head.
It’s not clear that the administration is even fielding nominees for that post. If they are, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee is unaware of it.
“They have not,” State Sen. Robert Smith (D-Piscataway) said when asked if the front office had contacted him about potential nominees.
The story’s similar at the Department of Human Services.
Murphy announced former Commissioner Carole Johnson would leave her post to join the Biden Administration on Dec. 29. That department is now led by Sarah Adelman, who was also a deputy commissioner before Johnson’s departure. Adelman has not been nominated to replace Johnson permanently.
The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has spent longer than those other two without a permanent chief. Adjutant General Jemal Beale resigned his post on Oct. 16, 2020, amid criticism of his handling of the virus in two state-run veterans homes.
Murphy tapped Col. Lisa Hou to serve as interim adjutant general the same day but has, so far, been unwilling to name her as Beale’s permanent replacement.
There’s no timeline for when he might have permanent replacements, either.
“I don’t have any specific answer,” he said. “But those processes, whether it’s interviewing folks, whether it’s working in the advice-consent side of our life with the Senate, those processes go forward.”
The governor still praised those acting heads, calling them “outstanding leaders” Wednesday, lauding he extended to acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, who has been nominated to permanently head the department.
Allen-McMillan’s nomination has seen little public movement since it was made in October. That could be because of senatorial courtesy — an unwritten but strictly followed rule that allows senators to block indefinitely gubernatorial nominees from her own county — though that’s not likely.
Essex is one of seven New Jersey Counties where Republicans have limited ability to block nominations.
While Sens. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) and Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) can block nominations from Essex towns in the 40th and 26th districts, respectively, neither lives in the county, meaning they don’t have jurisdiction over nominees from Montclair, where Allen-McMillan resides.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) said she did not believe courtesy issues were holding up the acting education commissioner’s confirmation.
There here is little difference between an acting commissioner and one who is confirmed by the Senate. The current acting commissioners, and the acting superintendent of the State Police, are currently running their departments and largely have the same legal authority as permanent members of the cabinet.
Higher Education Secretary Brian Bridges, it should be noted, was nominated in late October and confirmed to his position last month.