Between the lines

Looking for a smoking gun?

The state legislative committee investigating the handling of rape charges that involved two campaign workers for Phil Murphy is trying to find out who exactly hired the accused man to a prominent position in the Murphy Administration.

Katie Brennan has accused Albert Alvarez of raping her during the governor’s election campaign in 2017. Alvarez has denied the accusations, and two county prosecutors’ offices have declined to file charges.

Someone in the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office in late November 2017 notified Peter Cammarano, who became Murphy’s chief of staff, that charges would not be brought against Alvarez, according to testimony given to the committee by Cammarano.

This column originally reported that Cammarano had spoken with the Hudson County Prosecutor and recommended no charges be filed. But in later testimony before the legislative committee, Cammarano said he’d had no direct contact with Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez, but had originally been told by someone else that charges would be filed. Within a day he was again informed these charges would not be filed.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor investigated at the request of the state Attorney General’s office, according to a statement from the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, after the accusations were made public in a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in Oct. 2018. The Middlesex prosecutor also declined to file charges against Alvarez, claiming there was insufficient evidence.

After being cleared by a background check that said there were no pending charges against him, Alvarez was hired to a $140,000 post in January 2018, and a short time later received a $30,000 raise.

The legislative committee is seeking to learn who in the Murphy Administration hired Alvarez, and cannot get a clear answer from anyone. The committee on Feb. 4 sent a formal request for answers from the Murphy Administration, but Sen. Loretta Weinberg said she does not expect an answer. At another hearing held on Feb. 4, state Sen. Sandra Cunningham asked administration representatives whether or not Murphy himself authorized the hiring. But they could not say.

One question that remains unanswered is why a few months later – if no charges were pending and the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office had decided not to charge him months earlier – Cammarano asked Alvarez to resign.

The committee hearings have raised some serious questions regarding the handling of this case, such as whether or not the decision not to charge Alvarez was deliberately delayed until after Murphy was elected governor.

Although the Attorney General said Suarez had access to emails outlining the case almost from the day the charges were filed, she claims she did not know the details until October 2018.

Internal politics within the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office appear to be in play, since someone leaked copies of those emails as well as other communications with the Attorney General’s office to NJ Advance Media.

All this is more than a little unfair to both Brennan and Alvarez, because the case has turned into a political battle to help tarnish Murphy’s reputation, and to possibly invite a Democratic primary challenge against him when he runs for reelection in 2021. Several members of the legislative committee are allies of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who may be a candidate against Murphy or support someone who challenges the governor.

Brennan has said she approached several people in the Murphy campaign and reportedly in his transition team with her charges, which led to confusion as to who exactly was responsible for investigating the matter: the attorney general, the transition team, or the Murphy campaign.

A report conducted on Murphy’s behalf by former state Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero said aides to the governor made mistakes but used their best judgment when dealing with the case. But the report does say the system needs to be fixed.

Murphy has been quoted as saying his aides could have and should have informed him about Brennan’s charges.

Murphy, meanwhile, is prepared to introduce new rules for sexual misconduct investigations that will apply to employees of the governor during the transition phase between when a governor is elected and when he or she is sworn in. The rules would apply to people seeking jobs in that administration.

But this may be too little too late for both Brennan and Alvarez, since nobody appears to have the answers to provide clarity to the situation.

Cory Booker to run for president

Now that U.S. Sen. Cory Booker has won a ruling saying he will not have to give up his senate seat to run for president, he has announced his intention to become the Democratic nominee.

This means Booker will be allowed to run in the Democratic primary for both senator and president, and if he fails to win the presidential nomination, can seek reelection to his senate seat in November 2020.

This is bad news for Mayor Steven Fulop, who many believe wanted to run for the U.S. Senate after any plans to seek Sen. Robert Menendez’s seat fell apart when a mistrial and later dismissal of corruption charges allowed Menendez to retain his position.

Fulop, who appears to be running for reelection as mayor in 2021, may well indeed seek to unseat Booker, but he would be a long shot at best

Menendez recently got some good news. The Senate Ethics Committee officially closed its investigation after Menendez amended his financial disclosure forms to show that he had repaid about $112,000 in travel expenses originally paid for by Dr. Salomon Melgen. This was one of the charges against Menendez. The ethics committee, however, ordered Menendez to repay the travel expenses. This was a huge issue in Menendez’s reelection last year.

Maybe not a done deal?

Timing is everything in politics. So you have to wonder why opponents of West New York Mayor Felix Roque decided to hold their own press conference within minutes of his announcing his ticket for the May commissioners’ election.

Roque was originally scheduled to announce his ticket in December. His opponents, under the banner of “New Beginnings,” beat him to it when they announced that Commissioners Gabriel Rodriguez, Cosmo Cirillo and Margarita Guzman, along with Victor Barrera and Yoleisy Yanez will seek to unseat Roque.

Roque, however, announced a full ticket that included himself, Commissioner Susan Colacurcio, along with Richie Acosta, Ana Luna, and Maite Fernandez.

Perhaps to take the shine off Roque’s announcement, New Beginnings held a press conference moments later to announce they had submitted 5,000 nominating signatures to the city clerk.

These are the first volleys in what many expect to be a nasty and expensive race.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com