N.J. lawmakers grill Murphy staffers over lack of action regarding rape allegations

Jan 8, 2019

Three current and former employees of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy — who worked for him during his campaign and transition team, as well as in his administration — testified Tuesday that they learned of a rape allegation against a Murphy staffer, spoke to higher-ups about it, but took no further action.

The testimony drew criticism from lawmakers who suggested those officials did not do enough to make sure other employees were safe around the alleged attacker Al Alvarez or that action be taken against him.

“Nobody seems to have had any responsibility for anything,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, who co-chairs the committee.

Parimal Garg, deputy chief counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy, testifies before a joint oversight committee of the N.J. Legislature.

The claims came during the third public hearing of a state legislative oversight committee that is looking into the hiring practices of Murphy’s campaign and administration, after Katie Brennan accused Alvarez of raping her after a 2017 Murphy campaign event.

Brennan is now the chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.

Alvarez denies the claim and was never charged by police.

Alvarez worked on Murphy’s campaign, then on his transition team, and then in his administration until he resigned in October.

Brennan testified before the Legislature in December that she reported the sexual assault to various campaign, transition, and administration officials in 2017 and 2018, but that she felt like they ignored her pleas for help.

Some of those officials testified Tuesday.

Murphy’s campaign counsel Jonathan Berkon said he only learned of the allegation against Alvarez in 2018, months after the campaign ended, so there was little in his power to do.

Berkon testified that he and Murphy’s chief counsel Matt Platkin agreed it would be “untenable” for Alvarez to continue working in the administration as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority.

But he said he trusted that Platkin would fire Alvarez, which never happened.

Over several phone calls with Brennan, Berkon told her that Alvarez would soon be leaving state government, but stopped short of telling her why. He said he took no further action.

Parimal Garg, Murphy’s deputy chief counsel, testified that he was approached in January 2018 by Brennan who said she wanted to tell him about “serious wrongdoing by a senior administration official.”

She later changed her mind about telling Garg, and he dropped it.

It wasn’t until March that Brennan returned to Garg and told him that Alvarez had raped her.

Committee attorney Michael Critchley asked whether it was ethical for Garg to ignore an allegation of wrongdoing by a public official for two months.

“I did not demand that Katie do anything,” Garg said. “Katie was my friend, and I wanted her to make an informed decision about what the ramifications of her coming forward would be.”

Garg said he told his boss, Matt Platkin, about Brennan’s allegation and that Platkin replied there was nothing else for Garg to do.

Jose Lozano, who ran Murphy’s transition team, testified that chief of staff Pete Cammarano and transition counsel Raj Parikh told him about an anonymous allegation against Alvarez, who worked with Lozano on the transition team.

Lozano knew of the allegation when he learned that Alvarez had been given a job at the Schools Development Authority.

Berkon, Garg, and Lozano all testified they did not relay the allegation to Murphy, who says he first learned about it in October just before the story was published in the Wall Street Journal.

A fourth witness who testified Tuesday, Lizette Delgado-Polanco, became Alvarez’s boss at the Schools Development Authority in August 2018.

Delgado-Polanco said she did not know of the allegation against Alvarez until he handed her his resignation in early October after he had been contacted by the newspaper.