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The Katie Brennan case: What didn't Phil Murphy know and when didn't he know it? | Mulshine

Gov. Phil Murphy has claimed he was unaware of the sexual assault charges by Katie Brennan until the Wall Street Journal article two months ago; if so, why didn't his staff tell him about this ticking time bomb?

A lot of people are saying that Gov. Phil Murphy must have known about the accusation that one of his top campaign aides sexually assaulted a woman who was also working on the campaign.

Murphy says he didn't know. And maybe he didn't.

But in that case he qualifies as the single most incompetent politician in recent New Jersey history.

That was my conclusion after discussing the matter with Loretta Weinberg. She's the Democratic state senator from Bergen County who is leading the charge to find out just why Katie Brennan was stonewalled at every turn after she first reported that alleged assault last year.

Murphy's campaign for governor was in full swing at the time. After work one day, Brennan went out with a number of people from the campaign including Al Alvarez, a longtime Murphy ally who was serving as the Latino/Islamic outreach director.

According to Brennan, Alvarez offered to drop her off at her Jersey City residence. When they got there, he asked if he could come in to use the  bathroom. Once he was inside, she said, he began a sexual assault that ended only when she escaped long enough to lock herself in the bathroom.

Brennan reported the incident to the Jersey City Police  the next day. The subsequent investigation by the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office dragged on for months -  through Murphy's November victory and into the transition. Both Brennan and Alvarez were seeking posts with the new administration.

The timing of what happened next raises a lot of questions, said Weinberg, who was herself a sexual assault victim in her youth.

Brennan testified last week that after the election she told a member of the transition team that a highly placed campaign aide was the subject of a criminal complaint.

"Within an hour or so, she got a call from the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office to say, 'We're dropping the case,'" said Weinberg. "That's one of the unanswered questions: What are the parameters for dropping a case?"

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Perhaps Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez has an explanation for why her staff declined to let Brennan tell her story to a grand jury. But the case Brennan presented to the Legislature over five hours last week sure sounded like it needed to be heard.

Her candor and sincerity bring up a question that goes to the heart of Murphy's leadership abilities: Why did no one in the transition team bother to inform the governor about an accusation concerning the most explosive issue of the time?

From a pure political perspective, the conduct of Alvarez revealed him to be someone unsuited for employment in the administration of a liberal Democrat in the era of the "me-too" movement. Yet he was given a plum $140,000-a-year job with the Schools Development Authority.

Brennan testified that in her new job as chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, she dreaded the thought of running into Alvarez at state functions. That led her to keep pressing the case with state officials, she said.

When she got no answers, Brennan said, she emailed the governor himself to tell him about a "sensitive matter" she needed to discuss with him.

What Murphy did next raises the most difficult questions the governor faces, said Weinberg.

After sending her back an email saying he was "on it," Murphy turned the email over to his lawyers. One was the governor's chief counsel, Matt Platkin, as might be expected. But the other was Jonathan Berkon.

 "He's the campaign attorney from Washington, D.C.," said Weinberg  of  Berkon.  "I'm not quite sure why he was involved in a personnel decision for state government."

According to Brennan's testimony, Berkon called her and assured her that Alvarez would be leaving government employment. But Brennan hadn't mentioned Alvarez by name in the email.

"How did the attorney for the campaign know that it was Al Alvarez?" asked Weinberg.

More important, how did Murphy not know?

At a press conference last week, Murphy maintained that he didn't learn about the alleged sexual assault until three months later, when Brennan went to the Wall Street Journal after finding out that Alvarez was still on the payroll - despite Berkon's assurances he would leave.

If Murphy is telling the truth, his campaign attorney was just one of many top aides who failed to tell him of a matter that could be deadly to his administration.

As of Friday, there were news reports that Murphy's chief of staff, Pete Cammarano, will soon be leaving the administration.

The reports didn't say whether the governor is aware of this.

Perhaps he didn't get his Wall Street Journal yet.

ADD - SEE-NO-EVIL GREWAL STRIKES AGAIN: 

Murphy's attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, has a habit of turning a blind eye to questionable behavior by public officials.

Back when he was the Bergen County prosecutor, Grewal had a chance to follow up on a complaint of misconduct in office filed against then-Gov. Chris Christie by Bill Brennan, a former fireman turned attorney. Brennan alleged that Christie  failed to stop the fake "traffic study" at the heart of the Bridgegate scandal.

Municipal Court Judge Roy McGeady ruled there was enough evidence to go forward. McGeady said Christie had direct authority over Bridget Kelly and "at the very least could have influenced her to reach out to Fort Lee and stop that traffic study and the resultant traffic jams. He chose not to do that."    

Instead of pursing the politically sensitive case, Grewal dropped it without explanation. Now in the Katie Brennan case he cleared his fellow Democrat, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez, of any wrongdoing - again without giving us an explanation of just why the Alvarez prosecution was dropped.

In his letter on the matter, Grewal states that Suarez did not interfere with the investigation. But he doesn't address the issue of whether other officials in the office were in any way pressured because the defendant had a high rank in the Murphy staff. 

Why didn't his people interview Brennan? If they had, they would have found her account entirely believable. As for the defense put up by Alvarez - that any contact was consensual - if that had been the case she certainly would not have immediately called her husband to tell him about it.

Murphy's fellow Democrats didn't do him any favors. And his "I was just following orders" defense is the lamest excuse I've ever heard.

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