TRENTON — Gov. Murphy’s chief of staff told New Jersey lawmakers on Tuesday that he did not inform the governor or anyone else about sexual assault allegations against a former high-ranking official because he had been advised that doing so would violate state confidentiality rules.
“To the best of my knowledge, no one ever told the governor,” Pete Cammarano said.
Cammarano’s sworn testimony came as lawmakers grilled him and two other current and former officials over the administration’s handling of the allegations against Albert J. Alvarez, a Murphy campaign aide who became chief of staff of the Schools Development Authority.
The testimony Tuesday showed that six months after Alvarez was first told he needed to leave the administration, he was still on the payroll — and there was no pressure from the governor’s office to move swiftly. He resigned only after he was contacted by the Wall Street Journal in October.
Katie Brennan, chief of staff for the state’s housing agency, told lawmakers earlier this month that Alvarez sexually assaulted her during the 2017 gubernatorial campaign, and that Murphy’s aides dragged their feet when she raised concerns about her alleged assailant.
Cammarano testified that he learned of the allegations on Dec. 1, 2017, from Justin Braz, Murphy’s deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs.
Brennan said she had confided in Braz days after she was assaulted in April 2017. Braz testified Tuesday that he was “shocked and horrified” by the news, but honored his friend’s request for privacy and didn’t relay the information. At the time, Braz was chief of staff to a lawmaker.
But on Dec. 1, nearly a month after Murphy had been elected, Brennan told Braz she believed the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office would soon be filing charges against Alvarez and that “he might be arrested any day,” according to Braz.
With Brennan’s authorization, Braz raised the allegations and the possibility of arrest to Cammarano and the transition team’s outside counsel, Raj Parikh. At Brennan’s request, Braz said, he did not identify her by name. Later that day, Brennan told Braz she had learned prosecutors would not be bringing charges, and he passed that information along to Parikh and Cammarano.
Prosecutors in Middlesex County are now reviewing the case.
“I trusted the process would be handled accordingly,” Braz said when asked by lawmakers what he expected to happen. But he said he didn’t know what that process was.
Cammarano said outside counsel then performed a special background check on Alvarez, which came up clean. It was not clear what was involved in that check. Cammarano added that they decided to “limit” Alvarez’s hiring responsibilities on the transition to ensure he couldn’t retaliate against the alleged victim.
Parikh also advised Cammarano and the transition chief, Jose Loranzo, not to speak to Alvarez or anyone else about the matter, Cammarano said.
A few weeks later, Brennan told Matt Platkin, Murphy’s chief counsel, about the alleged assault. Platkin referred the matter to the governor’s chief ethics officer, and Cammarano said he called Alvarez into his office on March 26. Cammarano told him he had been accused of sexual assault and “should make arrangements to leave his state employment.”
“Mr. Alvarez adamantly denied the allegations and became teary-eyed and emotional, but I believed that he understood my instruction that he was to leave state service,” Cammarano said in prepared remarks. Chris Porrino, who was attorney general under Gov. Chris Christie and who was hired by Murphy’s office to assist with the legislative inquiry, sat next to Cammarano during his testimony.
Cammarano said he didn’t set a timeline for Alvarez’s departure.
“You’re the chief of staff and you’re making this recommendation. I don’t understand that level of dysfunction that takes six, seven months for it to come to a close,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex) told Cammarano.
He responded that he had reflected on that but didn’t have an answer.
At another point, he said, “There were times I wish I had told the governor.”
Brennan, appearing before lawmakers on Dec. 4, said she emailed the governor in June 2018 to request a meeting, citing a “sensitive matter.” The email did not disclose the allegations.
Murphy promptly told her to “hang in,” and copied schedulers on the email to set up a meeting. One never took place, and Murphy has said he didn’t learn of the allegations until his office was contacted by the news media in October.
Days later, on June 6, Alvarez’s boss, then-Schools Development Authority CEO Charlie McKenna, testified that he was called into the governor’s office to meet with Platkin.
Platkin told McKenna that “something had happened” during the campaign involving Alvarez and that Alvarez “needed to step back from government.”
McKenna, a longtime former federal prosecutor, testified that Platkin wouldn’t give specifics but told him that if the issue became public, “it would not be a good situation. It could embarrass the governor.”
At Platkin’s request, McKenna said, he conveyed the message to Alvarez the next day, without mentioning Platkin by name.
Alvarez "seemed to understand the situation,” McKenna told lawmakers. “And he said he had not done anything wrong, but that he didn’t want to put the governor in a bad position, so he would look for a job.”
Platkin didn’t set a timeline for Alvarez’s departure, McKenna said. A holdover from the Christie administration, McKenna left state government in August 2018. Alvarez was still working there at that time, but McKenna said he didn’t believe that was odd.
McKenna described Alvarez as a “fine” employee, though he hadn’t personally hired him, and said he had not received any complaints about him.
It wasn’t clear why Platkin requested the meeting with McKenna just a couple of months after Cammarano personally told Alvarez to leave. Cammarano said Platkin didn’t attend that meeting.
Around the same time that McKenna met with Alvarez, a lawyer who worked on Murphy’s campaign told Brennan that Alvarez would be leaving state government.
The legislative committee’s next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 8, 2019.