Latest Brennan hearing results in more questions than answers

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg: No one seems to be responsible for anything

By Anjalee Khemlani
Trenton | Jan 9, 2019 at 10:15 am

What was the organizational structure during the campaign and transition of Gov. Phil Murphy, and why did key players in his inner circle handle the allegations of sexual assault against former Schools Development Authority chief of staff Albert Alvarez the way they did?

Answers to these questions faced further scrutiny at a legislative hearing Tuesday.

“No one seems to have been responsible for anything,” state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) said during the hearing.

Weinberg is co-chair of the special legislative committee hearing, which is investigating the case involving Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency chief of staff Katie Brennan, who has accused Alvarez of assaulting her while she was a volunteer on Murphy’s campaign and Alvarez was on the campaign staff.

The attorney hired by the legislative committee, Michael Critchley, echoed Weinberg’s observation when questioning Murphy’s deputy counsel, Parimal Garg.

“Everyone points to someone else,” he said.

Prominent employment lawyer Nancy Erika Smith of Smith Mullin in Montclair offered a similar sentiment in a phone interview with ROI-NJ on Tuesday night.

“It seems like the relevant authority changes based on what they want to say,” Smith said. “It’s like this moving target. The administration doesn’t want anything to do with it because it happened on the campaign … and (the campaign lawyer said), ‘I can’t tell you (human resources) things because I’m just a campaign attorney.’”

Washington, D.C.-based attorney Jonathan Berkon, who represented Murphy’s campaign and who also has represented Murphy and other organizations of Murphy’s, played a role in speaking to Brennan and letting her know Alvarez was supposed to be leaving his post.

Berkon also testified Tuesday that he discussed Alvarez being fired with chief counsel Matt Platkin.

File photo
Attorney Nancy Erika Smith of Smith Mullin.

The legislative committee has been trying to understand why the rules and regulations that protect state employees who might face a similar situation were not utilized on the campaign or the transition.

Tuesday’s hearing is the third of at least five planned to date, with an end goal of implementing policies and procedures that can avoid a case like Brennan’s from happening in the future. The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Many facts remain unknown.

Alvarez’s side of the story has yet to be heard, as he has yet to comment publicly. And the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office has yet to release its report on how Hudson County handled the allegation.

Some lawyers have suggested that, because the assault allegedly took place at an after-hours event, even state employees wouldn’t be protected, while others have said the employer is always liable.

There are no laws that cover campaigns or transitions as it relates to human resources practices. The only laws that exist for transitions say transition members must follow the ethics rules of the state, and that funding may be provided by the state to help the incoming administration.

That total, according to Lozano on Tuesday, was $250,000 for the Murphy transition team. That included more than 70 employees, plus any additional expenses.

Which is why some insiders have said an investigation into the Alvarez allegations was not feasible in December, when they first came to light.

Who hired Alvarez anyway?

Lozano testified that he was told by Alvarez that he was selected as chief of staff to the SDA, and he asked Lozano to introduce him to then-CEO Charles McKenna, a holdover from Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. Lozano was questioned as to why he didn’t verify the information. Insiders have suggested the approval would have come from either Murphy’s chief of staff, Pete Cammarano, or Platkin.

Alvarez is appealing the denial by the Department of Labor to provide unemployment benefits. Is he eligible?

Smith said that, if Alvarez met the legal requirements of constructive discharge — being forced to leave the workplace by an employer making it unbearable to work — an employee can be eligible for unemployment. Alvarez resigned after a reporter from the Wall Street Journal contacted him about the allegations in October 2018. Alvarez’s second boss at the SDA, current CEO Lizette Delgado Polanco, said he willingly resigned. In his complaint, Alvarez said Polanco told him that the Governor’s Office was demanding he resign immediately.

“That’s not accurate,” Polanco said on Tuesday. “He actually came into my office to explain what had happened and gave me a letter of resignation.”

Polanco said she faxed the resignation letter to the Governor’s Office moments later.

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Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem