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Critchley to Advise NJ Senate Panel Investigating Alvarez Matter

Michael Critchley Sr., right, stands beside Bridget Anne Kelly during Kelly's criminal trial in Newark federal court in March 2017.

Defense attorney Michael Critchley Sr. is the latest notable New Jersey practitioner hired to help sort out why an adviser to Gov. Phil Murphy was allowed to keep his campaign job, and was later hired to a new job within the administration, despite sexual assault accusations against him.

Critchley of Critchley Kinum & DeNoia in Roseland, who has represented defendants in numerous high-profile matters, including one of the defendants in the Bridgegate criminal trial last year, will serve as counsel to the New Jersey Senate panel tasked with investigating issues connected to Albert J. Alvarez, who resigned as New Jersey Schools Development Authority chief of staff earlier this month amid accusations that he assaulted a woman while working on Murphy’s transition team in early 2017.

Word of Critchley's hire Wednesday came a day after Senate President Steve Sweeney announced the formation of the panel—the Senate Select Committee on Investigation—to parse whether the accusations against Alvarez were mishandled by law enforcement, and how the vetting process could have failed to turn up those accusations.

The accusations were levied by Katie Brennan, chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, who alleges that Alvarez raped her.

Alvarez, through his attorney, has denied Brennan's allegations.

The state's retainer agreement with Critchley Kinum will provide for hourly rates of $350 for firm partners, $300 for nonpartner attorneys, and $125 for paralegals, plus expenses, according to Sweeney's announcement.

Critchley couldn't immediately be reached by phone Wednesday.

Sweeney, in announcing the selection, touted Critchley's decades of trial experience, as well as his pedigree as an assistant in the Essex County Prosecutor's Office under Brendan Byrne, then a crime-busting prosecutor who later would ascend to governor.

Sweeney said in a statement that Critchley "possesses the experience and the skills needed to guide an effective investigation that gets a full accounting of the sexual assault allegations by Ms. Brennan, the government’s hiring practices and any systemic failures that deny survivors the justice they deserve.”

Sweeney added that Critchley "knows the law, understands government and has a relentless determination to get the truth.”

Critchley has handled many headline-generating cases during his career.

He has represented Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie who was charged, and convicted last year, of her role in the Bridgegate scandal, in which Kelly and others were found to have orchestrated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against a local mayor.

Critchley also represented Jamie Fox, a lobbyist and former New Jersey Department of Transportation commissioner charged in 2016 with arranging the so-called chairman's flight, whereby United Airlines was convinced to reinstate a route to a South Carolina destination near the vacation home of David Samson, then chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Samson pleaded guilty in connection with the scandal. Fox, who denied any wrongdoing, died in early 2017 while the charges against him were pending. Critchley continued to maintain Fox's innocence after his death.

Also among Critchley's recent clients is Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss, who was cleared in a civil suit alleging that he sexually assaulted and harassed a city employee. Last year an Essex County jury returned a no-cause verdict in Vauss' favor and ordered his accuser to pay $7,000 on a counterclaim for defamation.

Critchley's is at least the second hire of a high-profile New Jersey attorney in connection with the Alvarez matter. On Monday, Murphy announced the retainer of Peter Verniero, a former New Jersey Supreme Court justice and state attorney general, to review his administration's hiring and vetting practices. Verniero is a partner at Newark-based Sills Cummis and chairman of the firm's corporate internal investigations and appellate practice groups.

Brennan came forward in a recent Wall Street Journal report. She claims she hit multiple dead ends in reporting the assault to law enforcement, and the Murphy administration has come under fire for keeping Alvarez employed during the time since the alleged incident.

Murphy, though, recently said he learned of the allegations only when Alvarez resigned Oct. 2, according to reports.

Alvarez, through a statement issued by his lawyer, John Hogan of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in Woodbridge, has denied the allegations. “Mr. Alvarez absolutely, positively denies the allegations of sexual assault,” Hogan said.

Formation of the select committee was announced Tuesday. Its six members are Democratic Sens. Loretta Weinberg, Sandra Cunningham, Teresa Ruiz and Fred Madden; and Republican Sens. Steven Oroho and Kristin Corrado.