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Phil Murphy wishes he was told sooner about rape allegations involving a high-ranking member of his administration.
“I wish I knew sooner,” the governor said Thursday during ceremonies trumpeting the opening of a new bridge in North Bergen.
But the governor insisted that he understands why none of his underlings told him earlier than they did about the allegation Katie Brennan made against Al Alvarez. Referring to an internal report completed this week, Murphy said others in his administration, including his then chief of staff and counsel, were using their best judgment in opting not to tell him what was going on. In other words, he’s confident there was no deliberate attempt to keep the boss from hearing bad news.
Brennan’s charge has rocked the Murphy administration and continues to do so. She is chief of staff at a state housing agency. Alvarez, the man accused, had been chief of staff with the Schools Development Authority. He abruptly left that job last October shortly before the Wall Street Journal published a story on the case. That is when Murphy first heard news about the alleged assault; information some in his inner circle had known for months.
A special Legislative Committee has held seven hearings on the case, leading Murphy to talk about roughly 40 hours of testimony from 13 witnesses.
One cannot ignore a stark difference in style here between Murphy and his predecessor, Chris Christie. One of those 13 witnesses was Charles McKenna, who briefly headed the Schools Development Authority as a Christie holdover. McKenna testified a few weeks ago that if then-Governor Christie discovered he (McKenna) had withheld pertinent information, “I’d still be feeling the pain.”
But with the Murphy Administration, withholding information of this type doesn’t seem to bring any pain. At least not publicly.
The governor did say that he is determined to make sure nothing like this happens again. He said he wants to implement some of the recommendations in the report, including a longer transition period to allow more vetting of job applicants and extending employment law and standards to cover transition team employees.
“The buck stops with me,” he said, adding that sexual assault is not an “abstract” issue to him. It was a little more than a year ago when his wife, Tammy Murphy, said at a women’s march in Morristown that a man had tried to sexually assault her while she was in college.
Asked about the disbelief many observers have over the failure of anyone in the administration to say who hired Alvarez, the governor said, “I’m frustrated too.”
He added, “I can’t correct history.” But if he could, Murphy said Alvarez would not have been hired with a rape allegation hanging over his head. And if he somehow was, the governor said Alvarez would have promptly lost his job.
In one of the other mystifying aspects of this saga, testimony has revealed Alvarez was told to leave his job at least two times, and about six months before, he actually did.
Also puzzling is that prosecutors in both Hudson and Middlesex counties have declined to bring charges against Alvarez. Brennan stands by her story.
Asked if the absence of charges also makes Alvarez a “victim,” Murphy declined to give a “yes” or “no” answer.