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Gov. Phil Murphy. Photo by Kevin Sanders)

Select Committee report questions honesty of some Murphy officials

Report says Cammarano, Lozano hired Alvarez

By Nikita Biryukov, June 05 2019 11:04 am

The Select Committee on Oversight lambasted officials Gov. Phil Murphy’s transition and administration in a report detailing the findings of its investigation into the hiring of former Schools Development chief of staff Al Alvarez’s hiring Wednesday.

The committee’s report questioned the honesty of some officials, though it never outright accused them of lying in so many words.

“At no time has politics played any role in the committee’s work. Instead, as Governor Murphy has repeatedly implored, we have put politics aside and have attempted to just ‘call balls and strikes,’” the report says, quoting a common Murphyism. “Unfortunately, the apparent lack of candor by many key witnesses has impeded our ability to do just that.”

In one instance, the committee said that Murphy chief counsel Matt Platkin’s claim that he had no direct knowledge regarding Alvarez’s hiring and learned everything he knew “strained credulity.”

Among the committee’s findings — few of which are kind to former Murphy chief of staff Pete Cammarano’s, Platkin and Murphy transition chief Jose Lozano — is the committee’s answer to the long-asked question of who hired Alvarez.

“Mr. Cammarano was the ultimate decision-maker. Mr. Lozano concurred in the decision and implemented it … Mr. Cammarano and Mr. Lozano failed to take responsibility for Mr. Alvarez’s hiring,” the report says. “Their refusal to accept responsibility for Mr. Alvarez’s hiring and their assertion that they have no knowledge of who did is insulting to the committee and the legislature as a whole.”

State Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency chief of staff Katie Brennan has accused Alvarez of sexually assaulting her in April 2017, when he was in charge of Muslim and Latino outreach for Murphy’s campaign, for which Alvarez would later volunteer.

Cammarano, Lozano and every other Murphy official called to testify by the committee denied, under oath, hiring or knowing who hired Alvarez.

Even Alvarez could not directly identify who hired him, though he said Cammarano or Platkin would have had to sign off on the decision.

The committee’s report repeatedly criticized officials for their record-keeping practices, or — more accurately — the lack thereof.

Written records could have made clear the circumstances surrounding many of the incidents that were the subject of disputed testimony, including Cammarano’s March request that Alvarez “separate himself” from state employment.

Alvarez said he was first told to leave the administration in June.

They also could have prevented an unemployment lawsuit filed by Alvarez that hinges upon whether the former SDA staffer resigned or was pushed out of his job at the SDA.

Lizette Delgado-Polanco, who was the SDA’s CEO when Alvarez resigned last October, said Alvarez offered to resign without being asked.

Alvarez himself testified that he was forced to resign by Cammarano.

“This is not a situation in which a witness may have misunderstood or misheard a conversation. Mr. Alvarez and Ms. Delgado-Polanco have diametrically opposed versions of what took place during a meeting which should have been memorable to both, since it is not every day that a high-ranking employee approaches a superior to discuss a potential Wall Street Journal article involving an alleged sexual assault,” the report says.

The report said that the SDA’s response to Alvarez’s suit contains false information contrary to testimony made by Platkin, Cammarano, former SDA CEO Charlie McKenna and Alvarez, though it does not make any determination on whether the apparent falsehoods were intentional.

The committee’s report further stated that the lack of documentation related to Brennan’s EEO complaint — handwritten notes kept by Murphy chief ethics officer Heather Taylor are the only documents related to that investigation — was a departure from state policy.

Melissa Lieberman, chief of staff to State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and the one who handled Brennan’s complaint, said she did not consider the case a formal complaint and credited that belief as the cause for case’s unusual handling.

The committee also asked why Platkin did not recused himself from an investigation into Brennan’s allegations conducted by the Attorney General’s Equal Opportunity Employment Office.

Platkin said he did not formally recuse himself from the case because Taylor understood the full breadth of any potential conflicts

Taylor’s testimony appeared to contradict that, the committee said.

Neither of the two told the committee that Platkin told Taylor he attended the party after which the alleged sexual assault occurred, and Platkin told the committee he was “[n]ot really friends” with Alvarez, though he told investigators at the law firm Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. that the two were “definitely professional friends.”

“The testimonial evidence suggests that Mr. Platkin’s personal involvement in the matter as a potential fact witness and his personal relationships with Ms. Brennan and Mr. Alvarez may have caused him to try to handle the matter from the shadows by trying to avoid direct contact with either party as much as possible,” the report says.

The committee recommended that statutory state EEO laws should be expanded to gubernatorial transitions and that an EEO officer should be provided to the same.

They also recommended an increase in transition resources that would allow for strenuous four-way background checks for applicants to sub-cabinet positions in extraordinary circumstances.

Additionally, the committee called for amendments to the SDA’s enabling legislation that would make SDA employees subject to Civil Service Commission oversight, changes to the state’s confidentiality policies and more strenuous record-keeping requirements related to employee hiring.

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