Secret recordings: Fired official was asked to do COVID test for Murphy aide’s family
State New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, in secret recordings made without her knowledge, says she called off a request to test a top aide of Gov. Phil Murphy's relatives for coronavirus, NJ.com reports.
The recordings were provided to NJ.com by a group of health department insiders that have contacted several media organizations with recordings they alleged show New Jersey mismanaged aspects of the novel coronavirus crisis.
They appear to support, at least in part, allegations made by former assistant health commissioner Christopher Neuwirth that he was fired from the Murphy administration, after pushing back on a request from state police superintendent Col. Pat Callahan called Neuwirth to go to the home of Murphy chief of staff George Helmy and test Helmy's family members.
In a lawsuit, Neuwirth says he did not want to participate in the request because he found it “unethical, unlawful, incompatible with public policy, a misuse of governmental resources and/or misuse of power.”
In the secret recordings described by NJ.com, Persichilli tells an unnamed staff member she told Helmy, “he’s upset because, George, apparently you had asked him to go take swab tests of some relatives of yours. And he was on the Turnpike on a Saturday night... and I got a phone call because he felt it was ethically improper."
Persichilli says in the recording she told Neuwirth not to conduct the test, but that she also told Neuwirth “we would handle getting your relatives tested in the morning.”
Neuwirth also says in his lawsuit he returned home without conducting the test after speaking with Persichilli, who told him not to do the test.
Neuwirth initiated an ethics complaint and was soon let go from his position in retaliation, his suit claims. The recordings, as described by NJ.com, don't address his later firing.
Murphy and Callahan were asked about the suit at an unrelated news conference Tuesday. Murphy declined to comment on his and Callahan's behalf about the details of the case. The governor said Helmy and Callahan had been “heroes” throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I literally don't know where we'd be in this state without Pat Callahan and George Helmy,” Murphy said. “I cannot even fathom what our state would look like without them.”
Neuwirth's lawsuit also touches on allegations raised in news reports that he was fired over a second job he had at a consulting firm. Neuwirth said he disclosed work he did with the state health department's ethics liaison, who indicated there was no conflict of interest.
Murphy had been asked earlier about Neuwirth's departure from state government but declined to comment, except to say: “It’s par for the course that you’re not supposed to have another source of income.”
The governor pushed a “falsehood” that hurt his reputation, Neuwirth said in the lawsuit.
He is asking for the court to reinstate him to his old job and award back pay and damages.
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