Gov. Phil Murphy’s top campaign lawyer testified Tuesday that he never spoke to the governor about Katie Brennan’s allegation that she was raped during the 2017 campaign by an ex-official in the administration.
The Washington D.C.-based campaign counsel, Jonathan Berkon, also said he and the administration’s chief counsel agreed that the former official, Albert J. Alvarez, had to leave, and he was surprised to learn months later than Alvarez remained in his state government job.
“My recollection is that we discussed two things: First was kind of an exchange of views on the proper responses with respect to Mr. Alvarez, and I was certainly of the view that someone that had this kind of allegation against them, it would not be tenable to remain in government.”
When asked about how he felt when he learned Alvarez hadn’t left his job months later, Berkon said: “I was surprised and troubled by it, absolutely.”
The governor has maintained he had no knowledge of Brennan’s rape allegation until October, even though members of his inner circle inside and outside his administration were made aware. Just how Berkon learned about the allegation and became involved in the fallout has been an open question.
Within an hour of receiving a June 1 email from Brennan asking to discuss a “sensitive matter,” Murphy forwarded the correspondence to top lawyers for his campaign and administration, Berkon testified to lawmakers Tuesday.
Brennan was asking Murphy and first lady Tammy Murphy for a meeting to discuss the “matter” further. Instead, she was contacted by Berkon. After a few exchanges, Berkon said, he informed Brennan that Alvarez would be leaving his job.
Brennan says Alvarez raped her in her apartment after a campaign gathering in Jersey City in April 2017. The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file criminal charges and Alvarez, through his attorney, has denied the allegation.
Brennan said she notified Murphy’s inner circle, but Alvarez was hired on by the transition and then the administration.
Berkon testified Tuesday that Murphy forwarded Brennan’s June 1 email to him and Chief Counsel Matt Platkin, who told him Brennan had accused Alvarez of rape. They decided jointly that Alvarez had to go and Berkon would contact Brennan.
“Given the references to the campaign, it made sense for me to call,” he said.
Berkon said he did not respond to the governor’s email and he has not had any conversations with the governor about Brennan’s accusation that she was attacked.
A few days after Brennan’s initial email and after some back-and-forth, Berkon testified he told Brennan Alvarez would be exiting state government and that he could not provide her with additional information about why he was leaving.
“At a human level I felt badly about that and I still do,” he said.
Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, said she did not understand why Berkon did not follow up to see Alvarez had been terminated. She said she was troubled everyone involved had taken the rape allegation “so lightly.”
“It’s very difficult or me to understand that, given the severity of the allegation, you as the attorney brought into this felt no other responsibility other than to say, ‘I recommend or think Mr. Alvarez should be terminated,’ ” Cunningham said. “As an attorney you would have a greater responsibility – a greater obligation – to make sure something is done, to do their own investigation.”
“This was a young woman who came and said ‘I was raped.’ This is one of the worst things that could happen to a woman, and to have treated this so lightly by so-called responsible people is offensive,” Cunningham said.
When asked to say what he wished he had done differently, Berkon said “in 20/20 hindsight, ensuring that the departure had taken place.”
Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, committee co-chairwoman, noted how the campaign said it could not act on Brennan’s complaint because it was an administrative matter, while state officials deemed it a “campaign matter.”
“So somehow Katie Brennan was caught in a very interesting quagmire,” Weinberg said.
Brennan, chief of staff of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, on Monday filed a lawsuit alleging various members of Gov. Phil Murphy’s transition team and administration failed to investigate her claim, and violated her confidentiality by revealing her allegations to people who did not have authority to investigate.
Brennan also is seeking damages and emergency relief that bars the state from enforcing a confidentiality order against her as part of a new investigation into her statements that she has felt professional backlash since going public with her rape allegation.
Despite being told to leave his job by Murphy Chief of Staff Pete Cammarano in March and again by his direct supervisor in June, Alvarez remained in his job as chief of staff of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority until October, when he resigned after the Wall Street Journal contacted him for comment on Brennan’s allegations.
Among the witnesses who testified Tuesday was Parimal Garg, deputy chief counsel to the governor. He also described himself as Brennan’s friend.
“I admire her and respect her bravery,” Garg said.
Garg said Brennan approached him at Murphy’s inaugural ball and asked to speak privately about a “matter of serious wrongdoing.” She called him two days later and she said she had changed her mind about telling him. Two months later, she contacted him again, arranged a meeting and told him Alvarez had raped her.
“I was heart broken for my friend and I offered her my support,” Garg said.
Garg said he contacted his boss, Chief Counsel Matt Platkin, who told Garg the matter had been referred to Heather Taylor, chief ethics officer for the governor. “Matt said there was nothing more for me to do,” Garg said.
Michael Critchley, attorney for the committee, pressed Garg to explain why he didn’t press the matter further. “As an attorney do you think you had any duty to report this to the attorney general?”
Garg replied: “I had a discussion with my supervisor. … I did what I thought was appropriate at the time.”
This is the third hearing of the special legislative committee investigating how Murphy’s administration responded to Brennan’s allegation she was raped by a former top staffer. Brennan, Chief of Staff Pete Cammarano and others testified previously. A half dozen campaign, transition and administration officials are expected to testify between a pair of hearings this week.
NJ Advance Media staff writer Brent Johnson contributed to this report.