Senior aides knew about the rape accusation. Murphy claims he was kept in the dark.
Katie Brennan swore her oath Tuesday and offered hours of scorching testimony about the Murphy administration’s repeated failure to offer her a scrap of help after she reported that she was raped by a senior official in the governor’s campaign. Horrifying as her story was, it was not new.
The new twist is that the governor is reserving the right to stonewall the Legislature’s careful investigation of the facts by moving to block testimony of several senior aides.
“Hopefully the governor will cooperate,” says Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the co-chair of the joint committee investigating Brennan’s case. “If they don’t, we have the option of a subpoena.”
The big political danger to Murphy stems from his claim that he knew nothing about Brennan’s rape allegation until the Wall Street Journal moved to publish her story in October. Brennan testified Tuesday that she told several senior Murphy aides about the allegation months earlier, and that other senior staffers learned of it indirectly. Those in the know include Pete Cammarano, the chief of staff, Matt Platkin, the chief counsel, and John Berkon, the chief campaign counsel.
And that raises the question: How is it possible the governor didn’t know when so many members of his inner circle did? Are we stuck in some weird echo of the Bridgegate scandal?
Brennan, who volunteered on the Murphy campaign and works today as chief of staff to a state housing agency, was compelling and composed as she described a nightmare that stretched for 18 months, telling police, prosecutors, and aides to Murphy. Finally, she sent an e-mail to the governor himself asking in vain for a meeting about a “sensitive matter.”
It was all wasted effort, she testified. She got a stiff arm, while the man she accused, Al Alvarez, got a $140,000 job at the agency that oversees school construction.
Brennan kept bumping into Alvarez after the alleged rape, she said. And he kept his high-paying job, months after she was promised by the Murphy campaign’s chief counsel that he would be forced out. Even today, Brennan said, she feels frozen out by members of the administration in her work on housing issues.
“There have been some invites and e-mails that seem like the should have come to me, and they didn’t,” she said.
Murphy concedes that the failure to respond to Brennan’s rape allegation was a serious screw-up, by someone. “Nobody deserves this,” he said. “We have to get to a better place.”
But he personally didn’t know anything about it, he says.
On Tuesday, that claim was on everyone’s mind as Brennan named at least a half dozen Murphy aides who learned of the alleged attack directly from her, or indirectly from those she told. Among them were Cammarano, Platkin, and Berkon.
The next step is obvious. The committee needs to call those folks in to testify at its next hearing on Dec. 18. The committee chairs wouldn’t commit to that after Monday’s hearing, but they have already sent a letter warning the administration that they reserve the right to do so.
Why would legislators choose to be complicit in a cover-up? And how can they fix what’s broken if they don’t establish the basic facts first?
So, I asked Murphy’s office if they would cooperate in this next stage. I thought it was an easy question. I thought they would say the governor takes sexual assault seriously, that he believes in transparency, that he will do all it can to help the Legislature get to the truth as quickly as possible.
I was wrong. They issued a vague statement supporting peace and justice, but they would not answer my question. They are leaving their options open.
The governor has only weak cards to play. He could channel Richard Nixon and resist subpoenas by claiming executive privilege. And he could try to use political pressure to get the Legislature to back off. But both tactics would probably fail.
A claim of executive privilege would trigger a legal fight with an uncertain outcome, ensuring that this scandal hangs around Murphy’s neck for many months to come. Political pressure would likely be just as futile, given his poisonous relationship with Democratic leaders.
The governor seems to hope the Legislature will restrict itself to investigating the policies on sexual assault, without deeply examining how his people blew this one, or what he knew about it.
“They’ve got to make sure they don’t get political,” he said recently of the committee. “They’ve got to call balls and strikes.”
He told Politico that the inquiry should take a “whole of government approach, not just a piece of government” and that it should stay “survivor-centric.”
I have no clue what he was trying to say, so it was reassuring to hear Weinberg’s reaction: “I don’t quite know what that means,” she said.
But she is certain of one thing: This committee will establish a baseline of facts in this case. It will find out who knew what, and when, she says. It will do its job, no matter what the governor does.
“We are putting together a list of possible witnesses,” she says.
If the governor has one scrap of political sense, he’ll play ball. If not, he’ll never be free of this scandal.
More: Tom Moran columns
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