Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision to name former Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero, a Republican, to conduct an independent investigation of Albert Alvarez’s hiring, raises a question of whether an inherent conflict exists when a governor picks his own investigator.
Murphy and members of his staff picked Verniero to head up an internal probe of the hiring and vetting of Alvarez. It’s likely that Murphy and members of his staff who hired Verniero will be among those questioned as part of the investigation.
Verniero said in a statement yesterday that he spoke with the governor and was assured “complete independence to request interviews with whomever I deem appropriate as fact witnesses as well as access to relevant documents.”
Randy Mastro might easily have said the same thing.
Murphy isn’t the only one who might have a conflict.
“Outside investigators can suffer from at least the appearance of lack of impartiality and independence,” wrote Jan Duffy, a law professor, in an article for the American Bar Association in 2013. “They can be tainted by the suspicion that they are seeking future business in undertaking such investigations and may be inclined as a result to avoid difficult findings and conclusions.”
Verniero is a partner at Sills Cummis & Gross, a politically active North Jersey law firm. The firm contributed $100,000 to the Democratic Governor’s Association during Murphy’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign. Partners at the firm helped raise money for Murphy, and the firm has a contract to represent state agencies that stems largely from recommendations made by the governor.
In his statement, which was issued by the governor’s office, Verniero said that “my firm, Sills Cummis & Gross, and I were asked by the Murphy administration” to conduct the probe. That is reasonably interpreted to mean that others at the firm – still unnamed – will be part of the investigation team.
Verniero also said that his he will be looking at the hiring of Alvarez “regarding his position in the transition office and his eventual position at the New Jersey Schools Development Authority.” Unmentioned, at least so far, will be if the scope extends to Alvarez’s role on the Murphy campaign, or into the alleged allegation of sexual assault which occurred during the campaign.
One Republican leader, who declined to be identified, questioned whether taxpayers should foot the bill for any portion of the Verniero independent investigation that involves the Murphy for Governor campaign.