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Official accused of sex assault told to leave, but not fired

December 18, 2018

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration twice asked an aide accused of sexual assault to leave state government in the nearly seven months before a newspaper story detailing the allegations emerged, but stopped short of firing him, according to testimony before state lawmakers Tuesday.

Tuesday’s testimony under oath before a joint legislative panel from Murphy’s top aide, chief of staff Pete Cammarano, as well as a deputy chief of staff and another former official, shed new light about how the Democratic administration sought internally to handle the sexual assault allegations brought by Katie Brennan against Al Alvarez.

Brennan said in an October Wall Street Journal report that Alvarez, who worked as the top aide in the state’s Schools Development Authority, sexually assaulted her in 2017 and that little was done about her allegations despite reporting them to authorities and officials in Murphy’s transition team and administration.

Brennan is a top aide the state’s housing authority and testified before the committee earlier this month.

On Tuesday, it became clear that Murphy’s administration tried for months to push Alvarez out the door, but ultimately failed, until Brennan’s story became public in October.

Alvarez has denied wrongdoing and declined lawmakers’ invitation to appear before the committee.

Cammarano testified that he told Alvarez in March that he had been accused of sexual assault and that he needed to leave.

Asked why he didn’t just fire him, Cammarano said he thought he made it clear Alvarez needed to go.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have but the message was there that he needed to leave state government,” Cammarano said.

That testimony came shortly after Charlie McKenna, who was Alvarez’s boss at the authority, told lawmakers he was asked by Murphy’s counsel to tell Alvarez in June to leave state government. McKenna said he was asked by chief counsel Matt Platkin to deliver the message and didn’t know the details of the allegations at the time.

Cammarano said he confronted Alvarez about Brennan’s accusation after she came to Platkin in March. Platkin did not testify at Tuesday’s hearing. Lawmakers have said they plan to call him to testify.

Justin Braz, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs and a friend of Brennan’s, also testified Tuesday. He told legislators that he alerted the attorney for Murphy’s transition as well as Cammarano about the allegations in in late 2017 when he believed that charges against Alvarez were about to come down. In the end, the Hudson County prosecutor did not bring charges against Alvarez.

Lawmakers said after the hearing that it’s still unclear entirely how the allegations were handled. There are a number of “gaps” to be filled in, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said afterward. She co-chairs the panel investigating how Murphy handled Brennan’s allegations against Alvarez while they both worked to get him elected in 2017.

Brennan earlier this month told lawmakers that her allegations fell on deaf ears until she told her story to a newspaper.

She alleges she was sexually assaulted by Alvarez in April 2017 when they were both working to get Murphy elected. She said she came forward because not enough was being done about the alleged assault.

The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant their permission or come forward publicly, as Brennan did.

Murphy has said he believes his office acted appropriately, but that Alvarez should not have been hired. Murphy in October also announced he hired former state Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero to conduct a review of how the allegations were handled.

Another hearing is planned for Jan. 8.

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