Between the lines

Prosecutor emails raise additional questions

Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez has flatly denied that she knew anything about the rape case involving two campaign workers for Phil Murphy in April, 2017 before the Wall Street Journal reported on it in October 2018.

But emails recently uncovered by Advance Media suggest that she had been included in her investigator’s email chain on the case starting within days of the rape charge being filed.

Katie Brennan claims that Al Alvarez raped her following a Murphy event in Jersey City. Alvarez, through his attorneys, denies the charge and claims the encounter was consensual.

The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office investigated the incident and later decided not to prosecute. A follow-up investigation by the Middlesex Prosecutor’s Offices concluded that there was not enough evidence to prosecute.

An attorney representing Katie Brennan, the victim of the alleged rape, believes that the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office may have delayed its findings due to political pressure from the Murphy campaign (perhaps not to have the issue come out in the middle of a contested election for governor.) Suarez denied this and has given sworn testimony to the State Attorney General’s office saying she knew nothing about the case or those involved until October 2018 when the Wall Street Journal started asking questions.

A legislative committee looking into the matter seems skeptical of Suarez’s claims and has been seeking the emails to determine what she knew and when she knew it, as well as who in the Murphy administration hired Alvarez to a $170,000 position.

While Suarez may indeed be telling the truth about when she learned the details, common sense suggests otherwise.

Suarez has deep political connections to the Democratic Party. She was a one-time employee of the law firm headed by political heavyweight Donald Scarinci, and worked for state Democratic Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack. Many political observers believe her appointment as prosecutor by Republican Gov.Christopher Christie was a political favor to Stack, who supported Christie.

Why didn’t anybody tell Suarez about this?

More to the point, investigators for the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office could not have been oblivious to the political climate; nor were they foolish enough to take action involving a highly political situation without informing their superior.

Nearly everybody involved knew that both the victim and the accused were members of the Murphy campaign and that the alleged crime took place just prior to the Democratic primary, in a year in which Murphy would be facing a challenge from the Republican Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno.

Running against a woman candidate, the last thing Murphy needed was a sex scandal in the middle of his campaign.

This may explain why some of his closest advisers claim they kept the case secret from him even after the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to file charges after Murphy won as governor.

Is it reasonable to believe that Hudson County investigators kept their boss in the dark in what was clearly a high-profile political situation that involved the future governor?

Including Suarez in an email chain – believing she might not read them – may well have been an effort of underlings to cover themselves if and when the situation became public.

If she was not informed as she claims, then Suarez should have rightly been outraged by the fact nobody bothered to tell her about the situation for nearly two years, or that the case had been resolved. Instead of denying she knew anything about it, Suarez should have been calling for the firing of people who did not inform her.

It defies logic to believe that nobody thought to tell Suarez in that time.

While Peter Cammarano (then chief of staff to Gov. Murphy) testified that he had kept the governor out of the loop, he appeared to be following the case in Hudson County closely, even claiming he had been told charges would be filed, only to learn shortly afterward that no charges would be.

While Cammarano said he had not talked to Suarez, someone in the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office was in touch with him and was aware of just how important a case this was. That someone was savvy enough to know this was important enough to keep Cammarano informed, and yet still did not think it was important enough for Suarez to know.

Not buttoned up after all

Why Cammarano kept the case secret from Murphy is anyone’s guess, even when someone in the Murphy administration later named Alvarez to a high profile position in state government.

Even more puzzling is why Cammarano a few months later – and six months prior to the whole thing becoming public – asked Alvarez to resign.

If the prosecutor in November 2017 found insufficient evidence to prosecute Alverez, why did Cammarano seek to have Alverez resign in March or April 2018?

Brennan testified before the legislative committee that after the prosecutor decided not to file charges, she reached out to Murphy. This may well have scared Murphy insiders, who until then believed they had the situation buttoned up. But Brennan clearly wasn’t going away, and was not going to let the matter rest.

This suggests something of a panic behind the scenes, and a scramble to find another way to resolve the matter. But when Alvarez refused to take Cammarano’s advice to resign, the die was cast, so that when the whole thing became public in October 2018 the situation began to look like one vast cover-up.

How far up and down the political food chain this goes is only a matter of speculation.

But Murphy has political enemies in the Democratic Party as well as the Republican. There are some in both parties who may well be planning to challenge him for governor in 2021.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com