Did Suarez do the right thing?

Prosecutor defends her decision not to pursue alleged rape

Defending her decision not to prosecute gubernatorial aide Alberto J. Alvarez over allegations of a 2017 sexual assault in Jersey City, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez said she has allowed the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office to review the case “out of an abundance of caution.”

Katie Brennan, a Jersey City resident and former campaign volunteer for the election of Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, filed a complaint in April 2017 against Alvarez, alleging a sexual assault in an apartment in Jersey City.

Alvarez, who served as director for Latino outreach for Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign, resigned as chief of staff for the state’s School Development Authority on Oct. 2, following inquiries made about the accusations by a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

John Hogan, the attorney representing Alvarez, said his client denies the allegations.

An investigative story in The Wall Street Journal quoted Brennan saying she told the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office of the alleged assault, only to be told the prosecutor did not believe a conviction could be obtained in the case.

Brennan has since sought help from the state Attorney General’s office and other state officials. The state Attorney General’s office has opened an inquiry into the allegation as well as the hiring of Alvarez to his state position. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office is also expected to review the matter, without the involvement of Suarez or any of her staff.

Suarez said she has taken herself out of the loop because she knows both individuals involved in the case.

“I stand behind the investigation conducted by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office in reaching a decision not to charge the suspect Alberto Alvarez.” – Esther Suarez

Suarez said only after being contacted by a reporter for the The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 2 did she become aware of the investigation and the parties involved.

“It was on this date when I first had a discussion with the Attorney General’s office about this matter,”  she said. “It was also during that same conversation that I advised the Attorney General’s Office of my familiarity with both individuals. To reiterate the information that came out of the Office of the Attorney General earlier this week, a review of this case file was conducted following a media inquiry to my office earlier this month. I decided, out of an abundance of caution, to request that Division of Criminal Justice supersede the case because of my familiarity with both parties in this matter. DCJ agreed to the request and the matter was referred to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office for a second review.”

But Suarez said she believes her office acted properly.

“I stand behind the investigation conducted by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office in reaching a decision not to charge the suspect Alberto Alvarez,” Suarez said in a statement.

She said she stands by the work performed by the members of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office.

“The four investigators and two supervising assistant prosecutors involved in this investigation share a combined total of nearly 85 years of experience,” she said. “Upon review, it is abundantly clear that everyone involved with this case handled the investigation properly and behaved like the seasoned professionals that they are. I was not made aware of the parties involved or their workplace while this matter was under investigation, between April, 2017 and November, 2017. Considering the incredibly high case volume in Hudson County, this was standard procedure for the office.”

A political mess

Brennan, who served as chief of staff at the state’s housing agency and a volunteer for Murphy’s campaign, reported the alleged assault in April 2017. She told The Wall Street Journal she assumed Alvarez would be arrested and charged.

Brennan is quoted by the The Wall Street Journal as turning down at $15,000 settlement offer from Alvarez before reaching out to Governor Murphy’s wife, Tammy Murphy.

Assembly Republicans sent a letter to Murphy concerning Suarez’s investigation. Assembly Member Nancy Munoz, a Republican, said the assembly may hold hearings.

“Reports have made clear that immediately after alleged criminal sexual misconduct was committed by one of your staffers, the victim – a volunteer on your campaign – contacted the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office to submit her allegations,” the letter said. “Those circumstances alone would lead most people in this political environment to believe that her allegations have merit, but there is a void of information provided by your administration.

“A volunteer on your campaign had the courage and conviction to make her circumstances known, and she was greeted with a disappointing lack of action. It seems that there is a bias of what is acceptable and what is not.”

The letter said the governor’s reluctance to supply more information and failure to provide a thorough investigation into the alleged misconduct would raise more questions.

“The longer information is not provided by your administration, the more disturbing this situation has become,” the letter said. “Political inconvenience cannot be weighted more heavily than integrity. Sexual violence is not a partisan issue, and the public officials of our state have affirmed that time and again. We expect more of our governor, and remain hopeful that a complete legislative investigation finds the truth.”

Mounting pressure

Suarez, 47, a native of Bayonne, is a Democrat with strong political connections in the Democratic Party. But her appointment as the prosecutor by Republican Governor Christopher Christie did not sit well with some progressive leaders, who had proposed other candidates.

Suarez worked with Donald Scarinci, a close associate of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, and state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, both of whom vouched for her at the time of her appointment in 2015.

In the current political climate, some local officials fear she might become a political scapegoat.

But Suarez said she welcomes any review.

“I am confident that at all times this matter was handled professionally and I welcome any review of the way this case has been handled by my office,” Suarez said. “The implication that I would have interfered in any case to bring forth an improper result is both offensive and irresponsible. If I am called to speak with the special bipartisan committee I will gladly answer whatever questions they may have on this matter. I anxiously await the opportunity to defend this office and stop the misinformation.”

To comment on this story on-line, go to our website, www.hudsonreporter.com. Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com