New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) fired a high-ranking public health official for shrinking from a request to privately test relatives of his top aide as a “favor” when specimen collection supplies were in short supply, according to a whistleblower lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Christopher Neuwirth, the former assistant commissioner (AC) for NJ’s Division of Public Health, Infrastructure, Laboratories, and Emergency Preparedness described the request to test people connected to the governor as “unethical, unlawful, incompatible with public policy, a misuse of governmental resources and/or misuse of power,” the lawsuit pointed out.
“Because I pursued an ethics complaint [about the request], I was terminated,” Neuwirth told NJ Advance Media via his attorney, Christopher Eibeler of Smith Eibeler.
Murphy “mysteriously” pink-slipped Neuwirth on May 28, at the height of the ongoing pandemic, NJ.com noted on Tuesday.
His dismissal came after Neuwirth declined a late April request to administer coronavirus tests on two unnamed relatives of Murphy’s chief of staff, George Helmy, when specimen collection supplies were scarce. Neuwirth dismissed the request as a “complete waste” of his time, the court documents showed.
“Clearly, we cannot say no, or advise them that this test doesn’t matter, and it’s a complete waste of an AC’s time to spend literally 6-hours collecting one specimen,” Neuwirth declared in an email sent to the chief of staff of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli soon after receiving the request, according to the lawsuit.
“I’m sharing this with you simply for documentation, and in case this continues to spiral out of control,” Neuwirth continued.
NJ Advance Media, a local news provider and marketing agency, first obtained the newly filed whistleblower lawsuit. Gov. Murphy’s office reportedly denies the allegations raised in the lawsuit filed by the former health official.
“We look forward to a putting forward a vigorous defense against this meritless complaint,” a spokesperson for Gov. Murphy said in response to the lawsuit, NJ.com reported.
Neuwirth asserted that Murphy abruptly fired him after he expressed concerns within his department about the ethics of performing tests on people connected to the governor.
NJ.com pointed out:
At the time, New Jersey was testing only those with symptoms of COVID-19 [coronavirus disease] because of a shortage of supplies and manpower. Hundreds of people were still driving to the public testing site at Bergen County College in Paramus in the middle of the night to sit in their cars for hours, hoping to qualify for one of the 500 tests that were available each day.
When Neuwirth filed an ethics complaint, Murphy administration officials instructed him to get a “criminal defense lawyer” to explain the “consequences of submitting the ethics complaint,” the court documents revealed.
On May 28, Murphy’s Department of Health terminated Neuwirth amid allegations that he had failed to disclose a side job, considered a firable offense.
Murphy administration officials also accused the former high-ranking health official of leaking confidential information to the press about New Jersey’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neuwirth denied the allegations in the lawsuit, saying:
It’s clear that accusing me of wrongdoing and leaking information to the media was a convenient cover story for pursuing an ethics complaint, in addition to the administration lying and mischaracterizing my external employment and workplace performance. I am confident that once all of the facts surrounding my termination have come to light, it will be clear that I never behaved unethically and was terminated for doing what any public servant should be expected to do.
Neuwirth’s lawsuit is seeking reinstatement, back pay, as well as undefined damages and attorney fees.