For much of 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration faced a nagging crisis: former campaign volunteer Katie Brennan’s allegations that a top Murphy aide raped her during the governor’s first campaign. That same man kept a state government job for months after top staffers found out — which led to a legislative panel concluding Murphy’s inner circle failed her “every step of the way.”
Murphy also was dogged by allegations that his 2017 campaign was marred by toxicity and misogyny. A male aide threw a chair against a wall in the presence of a female staffer. And former aide Julie Roginsky, who was ousted from the campaign, called it one of the most “toxic workplace environments” she’s ever seen and accused campaign manager Brendan Gill of calling her the C-word — which Gill has vehemently and repeatedly denied.
It all was a flashpoint in New Jersey politics, coming at the height of the #MeToo movement.
In early 2020, Murphy publiclyapologized “to those we failed” and promised changes. Shortly thereafter, the coronavirus arrived. The crisis instantly shifted attention from the treatment of women in Trenton to the state’s pandemic response — with the Democratic governor holding daily news conferences and seeing his poll numbers soar.
Now, about a year later, all eyes are on Murphy’s second campaign as he vies for re-election in November. The governor has picked a new campaign manager and hired a human resources firm to conduct sexual harassment and diversity training.
Still, even as the new campaign aims to make a fresh start, questions linger about the first campaign, and Gill, who remains an adviser to the governor and wields immense influence in New Jersey politics.
A source close to the governor told NJ Advance Media that Gill repeatedly has been told “he would not have a role” in the 2021 campaign. The source, who lacks authorization to reveal private negotiations and requested anonymity, said the discussion with Gill about 2021 was “raised prior but then formalized in late 2020.”
Another source, who is intimately familiar with Murphy’s 2021 campaign, disputed the suggestion that Gill was repeatedly told he would not be involved in the upcoming race. The source said Gill was told last year “the campaign was going in a different direction and Brendan decided he was going to do something else.”
Gill, 45, a veteran of high-profile political races and himself an elected Essex County commissioner, said he knew right after Murphy won in 2017 that he did not want to run a statewide election again. He said he shared his intentions with Murphy last fall. Most campaign managers, he noted, don’t return in the same capacity in future races.
“My family, role in elected office, and taking the next steps in my career and business all led to that decision,” Gill told NJ Advance Media last month.
He added that Murphy remains a “close personal friend” and “I will do anything I can to help him get re-elected.”
Gill also disputed how the 2017 campaign has been portrayed. He said he’s “proud” of a campaign that won Murphy, a former Wall Street executive and Obama-era ambassador, the most powerful governorship in America and praised what “the governor has accomplished on some of the issues we’re addressing here.” That includes new laws Murphy signed to strengthen gender equity in New Jersey and how the state responds to sexual harassment claims.
Ashley Koning, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, said the 2017 campaign issues continue to be overshadowed by the pandemic, the rollout of a COVID vaccine, and President Joe Biden’s new administration. Still, Koning called the issues from the first campaign a “weak spot” for Murphy.
The accusations, she noted, clash with Murphy’s progressive message and the policies he has instituted — including signing equal pay legislation, restoring funding for Planned Parenthood, and appointing a Cabinet in which the majority of members are women.
“It’s completely juxtaposed with his stances and what he ran on,” Koning said.
Several Murphy officials who faced scrutiny have left for different jobs or were cut from the governor’s orbit since 2017. Still, state Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, said she’s bothered a few still hold government jobs or continue to have the governor’s ear.
“You can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk,” said Munoz, a member of the legislative committee that examined how Murphy’s transition and administration responded to the allegation by Brennan, who alerted his team after the campaign.
In February 2020, as scrutiny of the first campaign was intensifying, Murphy insisted he took the concerns “seriously” and that his campaign “addressed them.” He also vowed his future campaigns would “lead the nation in progressive workforce policies and be a model of a respectful workplace.”
In December, Murphy announced Mollie Binotto, a national political operative, would run his re-election bid. Binotto guided Mikie Sherrill to flip a North Jersey U.S. House seat from red to blue in 2018.
Then, last month, Murphy’s new campaign hired South Orange human relations firm Culturupt to implement a program to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace culture among the staff. That includes mandatory sexual harassment training, a code of conduct, and a system to investigate and resolve issues.
Murphy’s office declined comment for this story, deferring to Gill and the new campaign.
Binotto said Murphy has “delivered on his core promise to build a strong and fairer New Jersey” in his first term and is “following up on that commitment through his re-election campaign.”
She noted that all campaign employees already have been trained in a code of conduct, as well as a sexual harassment policy, “which clearly states that the campaign will have zero tolerance for violations to this policy.”
“The more we focus on creating really healthy and respectful workplace cultures, the better the work product,” Binotto said. “That is a big priority for the governor.”
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, who in late 2019 formed a panel investigating sexual harassment in New Jersey politics, tempered praise for Murphy’s decisions.
“I am very happy there is a new campaign manager, hopefully with her own campaign team and senior leadership which will not replicate the issues around the last campaign,” Weinberg said.
She added that it’s “a good step that his campaign is hiring people to teach how not to sexually harass people.”
Murphy on Friday announced a new senior campaign staff, including officials who have worked for Sherrill and U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona. All but one did not work as top officials for Murphy’s first campaign.
Nancy Erika Smith, a high-profile employment lawyer who represented Roginsky — the ousted Murphy aide — in a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News, said she was an enthusiastic Murphy supporter who raised money for the governor and still sees “a lot of good things coming out of” his administration.
She also approved of Binotto’s hiring, saying that’s “what he should be doing.”
But Smith said Murphy has shown a “blind spot” for people’s behavior if they are loyal to him.
“We pride ourselves on loyalty in New Jersey,” she said. “I do, too. But when loyalty for public officials crosses over to protecting against sexism, misogyny, workplace abuse, anything like that, you can’t be loyal to people like that.”
‘BRILLIANT’ BUT VOLATILE
Gill long has been influential in New Jersey politics. Before he helped Murphy become New Jersey’s 55th governor, he worked for multiple members of Congress, notably overseeing Frank Lautenberg’s re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2008 and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s re-election campaign in 2014.
In addition to being an elected Essex County commissioner, Gill runs the BGill Group, a public affairs and media firm. He received $10,000 a month as a consultant to the Democratic Governors Association from January to March of last year, after Murphy became chair of the group, according to Internal Revenue Service disclosures.
“He’s goddamn brilliant politically,” Jim McQueeny, a veteran political operative who also advises the governor, said of Gill.
Gill does not hold a taxpayer-funded job in Murphy’s administration but said he still lends political advice.
He also helped form a nonprofit fundraising group, New Direction New Jersey, that promotes Murphy’s agenda. Late last year, the governor starred in an advertisement produced by the group touting his first-term accomplishments.
Two women who worked on Murphy’s 2017 bid told NJ Advance Media that Gill showed a sometimes explosive or “unhinged” temper during the campaign, with one saying she “felt like he was harsher on women.”
A third woman, who worked in the governor’s administration, said multiple female campaign employees told her shortly after Murphy was elected that the campaign in general had “harassment issues,” and a few told her Gill and other top officials had “anger issues.”
All three women requested and were granted anonymity to participate in this story because they fear retribution. Two other women who worked on the campaign and had similar complaints declined to speak on the record because of the same concern about retribution.
NJ Advance Media, in every instance possible, sought to verify accounts of both the campaign’s atmosphere and Gill’s alleged behavior, speaking to more than four dozen people for this story. That includes numerous people who worked in Murphy’s campaign or administration and those who have worked with Gill throughout the last two decades, including many who defended him. The majority declined to go on the record.
Nine women, some anonymously, said while Gill can be “intense” or “demanding,” he is no worse toward women and he has frequently hired women for top positions. Many also noted the Murphy campaign, like others, was a highly stressful environment where heated conversations were commonplace but not egregious.
One of the women, a high-ranking official on the 2017 campaign, argued Gill has compiled “a tremendous career” that should “not be tarnished because a few people had afterthoughts.”
In one instance publicly disclosed here for the first time, there was a contentious back-and-forth between Gill and a female campaign employee during a meeting in front of two human resource directors on Oct. 6, 2017. The employee said she called him out for being disrespectful.
“He said, ‘I don’t care. Wipe that smug look off your face, or I will do it for you,’” the employee said.
Gill denied making the statement. “It didn’t happen,” he said.
NJ Advance Media spoke to four other people present at the meeting, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. One said “I don’t recall that exact language being used.” Another said “I do not recall the conversation like it is alleged.” A third said “I do not have any specific recollection about Brendan making a comment like that.” A fourth said “I don’t remember” Gill speaking the way it was “described,” and that if Gill had made that statement, that would have “raised my interest.”
Two campaign officials, speaking anonymously, said the woman made no formal complaint against Gill afterwards.
Gill acknowledged the meeting was tense because they had discussed questions about “a potential misallocations of campaign funds.” Gill said the woman who accused him of making the statement “had the ultimate responsibility for those decisions.”
“There were questions raised around a budget allocation, the reason for it, and where it was going,” Gill said in an email. “I didn’t have the direct responsibility for compliance/oversight of this program, but the appearance of this I would say made that portion of the meeting extremely tense and the temperature was high.”
The female campaign operative who Gill implicates responded by providing emails from Oct. 5 and 6, 2017, in which she raises questions about missing checks she said had been in Gill’s possession.
“I have no record of Laborers checks (that) were given to you today” by a Murphy campaign official, according to the Oct. 5, 2017 email. “Without copies, I have no way of tracking programmatic updates for each county’s budgets or plan for upcoming GOTV expenses,” the woman added.
Gill replied in an email: “Emily or Justin should have the checks. Why didn’t someone just ask?” Gill asked that a meeting be scheduled to discuss the matter, which was held on Oct. 6, 2017, when the alleged blow-up occurred.
The events of the 2017 meeting arose in 2019, when a reporter from another news outlet asked Gill about the alleged confrontation. According to an email reviewed by NJ Advance Media, Gill contacted the woman’s new employer, a political operative, to insist her version of the meeting was “false.” He also claimed, without providing evidence in the correspondence, that the meeting was held in part because he believed the woman “attempted to steal” a large sum of money from the campaign, according to the email.
In the email, Gill also accused the woman of pushing the story to damage him and “by extension” the governor.
In August 2019, the woman’s attorney, Jack Arsenault, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Gill saying he “gravely harmed” her with a “false assertion that she was suspected by unnamed persons of attempting to steal money.” Arsenault demanded Gill retract the statements in writing and apologize, according to a copy of the letter obtained by NJ Advance Media.
Gill did not respond to the letter, the woman said.
Gill said he sent the email to “flag a serious issue to her employer” and “to respond to the political nature of the false charge.”
“It was not retaliation,” he said. “It was simply a statement of facts.”
Asked if the woman did misallocate funds, Gill said it was determined at the time that “the action had not happened” and it was “able to potentially be stopped.”
Gill and two other campaign employees, who were granted anonymity, said the woman herself drew complaints from staffers about exhibiting hostile behavior toward them.
One employee said he left the campaign shortly before Election Day because of her behavior, saying she had a “nasty attitude” and “belittled me publicly.”
The woman declined to comment on this employee’s remarks but shared an email, dated Oct. 6, 2017, in which she explained how the employee allegedly had not completed a series of time-sensitive tasks.
Another incident previously not publicly disclosed involves a two-decade-old confrontation in which Gill pleaded guilty to a simple assault charge when he was a 25-year-old Seton Hall law student.
While this was not universally known by those working on Murphy’s 2017 bid, a former campaign worker who alleges Gill was verbally abusive said she was unnerved to learn about the charge two years after the campaign.
In 2000, a law school classmate said an intoxicated Gill slapped him across the face during a party at a Hanover hotel, according to police records obtained by NJ Advance Media through an open public records request. Gill, then an aide to Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, filed a separate complaint saying the man and two others assaulted him, the reports show.
The classmate then filed a citizen’s complaint alleging that, later that night, Gill struck him with an aluminum baseball bat in the head, neck, shoulders, and midsection in Bloomfield, according to court documents obtained by NJ Advance Media.
Gill strongly denies he hit anyone with a bat. Michael Critchley, Gill’s lawyer and a prominent defense attorney, said no weapon was used and no injuries occurred.
Critchley noted the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office reviewed the matter and declined to indict Gill, sending the case back to Bloomfield municipal court. He stressed that if a weapon was used, Gill could not have pled guilty to simple assault.
“It was a simple incident that was put on steroids,” the attorney added.
Gill ultimately pleaded guilty to purposeful simple assault to knowingly cause bodily injury, a disorderly person’s offense, records show. Gill paid $1,660 in fines and court fees in December 2001 in Bloomfield municipal court, records show.
A police report obtained by NJ Advance Media did not provide other details about the alleged attack, other than it involved a “male getting jumped” around 3:50 a.m. on Bloomfield Avenue. The incident was listed as a “public disturbance.”
The alleged victim declined to comment when approached last year and has not returned messages since then. An attorney for the accuser said he did not recall details of the case. A person said to have witnessed the event has not returned multiple messages.
A spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office said it no longer has records of what happened. Bloomfield municipal court officials did not return a message seeking comment.
The charge was expunged from Gill’s record sometime after NJ Advance Media reviewed it from public court documents last year.
“I paid a fine and I moved on with my life,” Gill said. “I’ve gone on in the last 22 years to do a bunch of other things. It was not something I’m proud of. We’ve all had moments in our life that, I’m sure, you’re not proud of. But it was absolutely something that was an experience I learned from that shouldn’t have happened. However, it wasn’t to the level that I feel people now 22 years later should be hashed — like, am I a violent person? I think it’s really a bridge too far.”
Pascrell’s former chief of staff, Ed Farmer, for whom Gill once worked, said the office knew about the charge at the time and took it “seriously,” though Gill was ultimately not disciplined. In fact, Gill was made the congressman’s 2000 re-election campaign manager shortly after that.
“It was definitely not something brushed under the rug,” Farmer said. “We worked through it, figured out what it was. He was embarrassed and extremely regretful.”
He described Gill as “extremely dedicated,” as well as “honest, direct, and fun to work with.” He also said he would “absolutely” hire Gill again.
“Things happen when you’re in your mid-20s,” Farmer said. “I didn’t see it as a character issue at the time. I had never seen any aggression or violence. It seemed really isolated to me.”
Today, Gill is among several people who worked on Murphy’s 2017 bid who believe the campaign has been unfairly maligned as toxic and misogynistic — a message they say is being molded by enemies of Gill and the governor.
“People have their private axes to grind,” said Robin Wallace, a field director for the campaign in Hunterdon, Sussex, and Warren counties who did not report directly to Gill. “I found it to be a really supportive environment. It was a place I saw women of all ages really given powerful roles. … I’m really disappointed some of the people I worked with are doing this.”
Kathryn Weller-Demming, who has worked with Gill on multiple campaigns, including as a volunteer on Murphy’s 2017 bid, argued that “everyone was treated with respect, regardless of race, gender, creed, sexuality” and that Gill is “as good as they come.”
Kelly Maer, who has known Gill for more than 20 years and worked as a volunteer on the 2017 campaign, said the narrative is being fueled by “sour grapes” and that Gill is “very fair” and “very supportive of women.”
Gill said he has spent most of his career “trying to create opportunities for those that I worked with and, in particular, for the women I’ve worked with.”
“I have always tried to treat people fairly, justly,” he said. “Am I passionate? Absolutely. Am I passionate about what I do? Absolutely. But I care about each and every individual that I’ve ever worked with or for.”
Gill also insisted the campaign “had mechanisms in place to deal with issues like workplace environment” and “how complaints are handled.”
There was at least one formal complaint brought against Gill during the 2017 Murphy campaign. Roginsky, a top consultant to the campaign, alerted Murphy and the campaign’s attorney about a heated telephone conversation she had with Gill in which she said he was “abusive and out of line.”
Roginsky, who contributes to a political column for The Star-Ledger editorial page, publicly accused Gill of calling her the C-word during the call — which Gill said was a “malicious politically motivated lie.”
Roginsky said she was fired shortly after telling Murphy about the alleged atmosphere on the campaign. A campaign spokeswoman said in early 2020 that Roginsky was “separated” from the campaign and was attempting to “rewrite history.”
The campaign conducted a review at the time and concluded that Gill used “variants” of the F-word during the call and that his conduct was “inappropriate,” according to emails obtained by NJ Advance Media. Gill then apologized to Roginsky in writing, according to the emails.
In a January 2020 statement, Murphy said Roginsky’s complaint “was a personnel matter between two senior members of my team rather than relating to a larger workplace issue.”
Roginsky declined to comment for this story.
A special legislative panel investigating how Murphy’s team responded to how his inner circle responded to Brennan’s allegations also asked top campaign officials about the atmosphere on the 2017 bid. Jonathan Berkon, an attorney for the campaign, testified during the panel’s public hearings in 2019 that the campaign received “three to five complaints” about the working environment — which he said was “not atypical for a campaign of this size.”
Berkon added that there were “some people” in the campaign who believed there was a troubling atmosphere, and “others who did not.”
A MUCH LARGER PROBLEM IN TRENTON
Allegations of toxicity in New Jersey are not limited to Murphy’s campaign. In December 2019, NJ Advance Media published a report in which 20 women say they were victims of sexual harassment and misconduct while working on political campaigns and doing lobbying work.
In a January 2020 speech, Murphy called for New Jersey to fix “the pernicious sexism and abuse” that has infiltrated the state’s politics. He said “too many people in power have their eyes away” from bad behavior in the past and urged everyone to “work together to tear down the existing system and replace it with one that treats everyone with equal dignity and respect.”
Meanwhile, the special committee formed in 2019 to examine “the toxic culture” against women in New Jersey politics held public hearings, took testimony, and drafted legislation to improve protections. Murphy signed a number of the bills into law last year.
Last month, the panel released a 76-page report urging the creation of an independent investigative unit to examine complaints against political campaigns and government.
Weinberg, the committee’s founder,recently introduced a bill that would require campaigns and political parties in New Jersey to implement anti-harassment policies, training, and a confidential complaint process. It also would establish an independent governmental unit to investigate complaints of sexual misconduct in New Jersey politics.
Weinberg said campaigns in general “are a conglomeration of people who don’t get enough sleep and eat too much sugar and their behavior sometimes is just like 3- and 4-year-olds.”
“I don’t want to have to depend upon the good offices of Gov. Murphy or any other candidate,” the veteran lawmaker added. “These things need to be enshrined in law to make sure they don’t happen.”