Ex-NJ health official Chris Neuwirth asks court rule on investigation
A former top health official who helped lead the state’s initial COVID-19 response has asked a judge to force the health commissioner, the attorney general and Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief of staff to explain who ordered a “secret criminal investigation” into him after he was fired.
Nearly two years after Christopher Neuwirth filed a whistleblower lawsuit, his attorneys said the administration has refused to say who was behind a “retaliatory” investigation and “made clear they will not answer the questions.”
“Enough is enough and the court’s intervention is now needed,” Chris Eibeler, an attorney for Neuwirth, said in a motion filed Thursday in Superior Court in Mercer County.
The source of the investigation, conducted by the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, is one piece of a broader puzzle concerning Neuwirth’s firing in May 2020.
He contends the administration retaliated against him for refusing to conduct a COVID-19 test on a relative of George Helmy, the governor’s chief of staff, when supplies were rare. In news reports, anonymous sources “within the governor’s office and/or the state” said Neuwirth was fired for holding an unapproved outside job.
Murphy and then-chief counsel Matt Platkin — now the acting attorney general — seemed to confirm those reports in public by speaking generally about the rules for outside employment.
Eibeler has said Neuwirth had permission to work a second job, as a consultant for the firm Margolis Healy, and that none of the allegations investigated by the state were brought to Neuwirth’s attention when he worked for the state.
Lawyers for the administration have not given an explanation in court for Neuwirth’s firing and Eibeler has said Neuwirth was told “his services were simply not needed.”
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After Neuwirth was fired and sued the administration claiming retaliation, the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability informed his attorneys that it started an investigation after getting a call from “someone in the governor’s office,” according to court filings.
The office confirmed in a January filing that it conducted an investigation into Neuwirth and did not pursue criminal charges, but noted that “does not equate to a conclusion that plaintiff did nothing wrong.”
“The timing of the investigations strongly suggests, if not proves, that the investigations were initiated for illegitimate, retaliatory purposes, using taxpayer resources to ‘dig up dirt’ on a whistleblower who filed a lawsuit against high-ranking public officials,” Eibeler said in the latest motion. “It is time for plaintiff to learn who ordered it.”
Former Attorney General Gurbir Grewal created the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability in 2018 to “combat corruption and strengthen public confidence in government institutions.” That office, led by former federal prosecutor Thomas Eicher, reports directly to the attorney general.
Platkin, who is awaiting confirmation hearings, is not involved in the Neuwirth lawsuit, and the administration is represented by attorneys from the Newark firm Friedman Kaplan Seiler and Adelman. The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.
Eibeler has asked the judge overseeing the case, Douglas Hurd, to compel the depositions of Helmy and Platkin, as well as Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. He has also asked for “full discovery concerning who, when and why these post-termination investigations were ordered.”
Hurd has not made a decision yet.
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.