The accusation rocked Trenton, New Jersey: A top official in Gov. Philip Murphy’s administration claimed that another official had sexually assaulted her during Murphy’s campaign in 2017. Yet despite the woman’s repeated pleas to Murphy’s senior aides, her colleague remained in his $170,000-a-year state job for months before resigning.
Murphy said he did not know about the assault accusation by Katie Brennan against Albert Alvarez before it became public and that his administration had technically done nothing wrong. The legislature launched an investigation, while the governor opened a separate review by an outside counsel.
Now, five months later, one simple, yet significant, question remains a head-scratching mystery: Who hired Alvarez?
It is one of several questions in a slow-boil scandal that has revealed the inner workings and shortcomings of New Jersey state government.
— A High-Level Hire But No One Says Who Did the Hiring
Everyone from the governor to top aides have denied — under oath — having hired Alvarez, who has denied the accusation. Even Peter Verniero, a former state Supreme Court justice enlisted by the Murphy administration to conduct an outside review was unable to determine who hired Alvarez.
It seems implausible that no one can say who hired Alvarez. Indeed, state legislators are growing increasingly skeptical that a sitting governor cannot figure out who on his staff approved a high-level hiring.
Republicans on the committee investigating Brennan’s case have called on Murphy to testify.
Alvarez got a top position as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority even though he had already been accused of sexual assault.
His hire has also raised broader questions about the hiring practices of Murphy’s transition team and whether other officials who cultivated close ties with the governor during the campaign ended up with high-paying state jobs with little vetting.
— A Deeply Flawed Policy in the #MeToo Era
Murphy has said that he “accepted responsibility” for his administration’s response to Brennan’s accusation and would not punish aides for following what they thought current state policy said was the proper course of action.
Matt Platkin, Murphy’s chief counsel, advised members of Murphy’s inner circle about confidentiality restrictions that would have also precluded anyone from telling the governor about Brennan’s claim.
Heather Taylor, the chief ethics officer, said in her testimony that she told Brennan the state could not investigate her accusation because the assault happened before Brennan and Alvarez started working for the state. (Brennan had initially tried to press criminal charges against Alvarez through the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office, which eventually declined to pursue the case.)
The state recently recommended numerous changes to how it handles sexual misconduct cases, including expanding the state’s jurisdiction to investigate claims of sexual harassment and assault. But it did not address the confidentiality restrictions.
— Why Hasn’t This Been National News?
The accusation and ensuing scandal threatened to halt the liberal agenda of Murphy, who pledged to steer the state sharply to the left after eight years of Republican leadership under Chris Christie.
And it seemed likely to spill beyond the confines of Trenton; a #MeToo allegation rooted not in the halls of media or Hollywood but in the inner sanctum of a progressive administration that sought to be a champion for women’s rights.
Yet it never seemed to grab the energy pulsing through the national reckoning over sexual assault and harassment, in part because, aside from Brennan’s wrenching testimony, no smoking gun has emerged.
“So far, the only culpability possibly ascribed to the governor himself is having put together a leadership team that seems to not yet have clear lines of authority for hiring or crisis management or communication,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
While Murphy has sought to avoid blame for the handling of the accusation, he has embraced Brennan’s claim as credible.
And over many days of testimony in the legislature, no one has contradicted the administration’s explanations. Much of the recent testimony, in fact, has become repetitive.
— What We Know Since the Allegations Surfaced
Nearly every member of Murphy’s inner circle has been called to testify.
Platkin emerged as a central character. He was one of the first among Murphy’s senior aides whom Brennan contacted to raise her accusation. He said he did not tell the governor early on because he did not want to violate confidentiality rules and instructed other top aides to do the same.
In June 2018, when Brennan reached out directly to Murphy in an email, saying she wanted to discuss a “sensitive matter” with the governor and his wife, Murphy responded by saying that they were “on it.” The governor forwarded Brennan’s message to Platkin and Jonathan Berkon, the lawyer for his campaign. Platkin then told Berkon the details of the accusation and worked with him on how best to respond.
Platkin also reached out to Charlie McKenna, who was then Alvarez’s boss, and told McKenna to instruct Alvarez to “step back” from his position.
Pete Cammarano, Murphy’s recently departed chief of staff, told legislators that he called Alvarez into his office last March and told him he should begin looking for another job, though he stopped short of firing him. Alvarez resigned last October after being contacted by a reporter for The Wall Street Journal about Brennan’s accusation.
— What’s Next?
Though Verniero’s report found no wrongdoing by the Murphy administration and many key players in Murphy’s administration have testified, the matter is not closed.
Loretta Weinberg, a Democratic state senator and one of the chairs of the committee investigating the case, has suggested that the committee’s work would continue and said she was disappointed with Verniero’s report.
“It fails to meet any reasonable standard for an investigation into the serious allegations of sexual assault, the screening practices for hiring public employees, the failure to take responsibility by key officials, the continued failure to find out what went wrong and the reasons why no real actions were taken to address the plight of the alleged assault survivor,” Weinberg said in a statement.
Brennan has also sued the state and Alvarez.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.