Easy to Lose Focus of the Outside World

TRENTON -Committee Room 4 in the Statehouse annex resembles something out of a museum. There are intricate stained glass windows, huge interior columns, wall murals and a ceiling that seems 30-feet high. Sit there for awhile and it’s easy to lose focus on the outside world.

That was certainly true Friday during what was the sixth meeting of the Select Committee on how the Murphy team handled an alleged sexual assault involving two individuals who were given top jobs in the administration. As yet another witness tried to explain and defend actions that were, and were not, taken, it was hard to overlook the “real news” outside the meeting room.

One aspect of that was the decision earlier this week by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office not to file charges against Al Alvarez. That reinforced the conclusion made more than a year ago by the Hudson County prosecutor. The committee’s work officially has to do with hiring practices, not alleged rapes, but the lack of prosecution in the very least has to raise doubt about what really happened in April of 2017 between Alvarez and his accuser, Katie Brennan.

Or if you look at this another way, the decision not to prosecute can also raise questions about how the law enforcement community responds to women who credibly say they were assaulted. Most who saw Brennan’s testimony in December were impressed.

And if you needed yet another distraction, news broke in mid-afternoon of a deal to end the federal government shutdown.

All of this was a bit unfortunate, because the witness before the committee was Rajiv Parikh, who was counsel to the Murphy transition team. Parikh was clearly the best of the handful or so witnesses appearing so far on behalf of the governor. He was poised,  candid and seemed inclined to actually answer questions and to provide information to the committee, and by extension, the public.

Throughout these hearings, witnesses have said they never told the governor on advice of counsel that one top official in his administration may have raped another one. Well, Parikh was one of those “counsels” involved. And his story was a bit different.

The committee’s co-chair, state Senator Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, asked Parikh if he had set down some sort of “blanket confidentiality” that forbid discussion about the allegation. No, he had not. He added that senior officials  could have made the decision themselves on whether or not to tell Murphy.
A few minutes later, Weinberg more directly asked if he had specifically instructed officials not to inform the governor.

“I did not,” Parikh said.

Ah, the plot thickens. As was pointed out by committee members, previous witnesses have testified that they were always told to keep the governor in the dark.

Parikh, however, was unable to help with the mystery of who hired Alvarez as chief of staff in the Schools Development Authority.

“Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to that,” he said. A few minutes later, Parikh said he didn’t even know Alvarez was hired. Keep in mind that Parikh worked on the transition team. but is not part of the administration.

Later, Republican Senator Kristin Corrado of Passaic County, wondered if Alvarez essentially hired himself, meaning did he pick the job he wanted and just show up. A lot of political hires are streamlined, but still, work has to be done to put someone on the payroll, a fairly important formality.

Alvarez’ hiring process, such as it was, was further explored by committee co-counsel Joseph Hayden. As he walked through the administration’s hiring patterns in general, Hayden asked Parikh if the individual who hired Alvarez – this mystery person – may have wanted to know about the sexual assault allegation.
It was here that Parikh sounded a bit too much like previous witnesses, suggesting that informing someone of that would have been illegal.

Hayden, a veteran attorney, wasn’t buying it, noting that the two officials who ran the Schools Development Authority when Alvarez was there have testified they would have wanted to know about the sexual assault allegation.

Parikh explained that just because people “want” to know something doesn’t mean they are legally entitled to know it. OK. That’s a fair point.

Nonetheless, Hayden was obviously trying to bring the discussion into the “real” world. And that world continues to suggest that the governor should have known about the allegation against Alvarez, as should have whoever hired him. Just as an aside, can they be one in the same?  In one anecdote offered by Parikh, Murphy and Alvarez were friendly to each other during the transition and occasionally talked about soccer.

There was no speculation about that, but Hayden eventually observed, “Ultimately, common sense trumps everything.”

Not in this case.

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