FLEMINGTON, NJ – Christopher Neuwirth is suing the State of New Jersey after he says he was fired simply for not giving Governor Phil Murphy’s Chief of Staff’s family COVID-19 tests on demand. Neuwirth worked as the assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health since 2018. Murphy, who has been asked about this lawsuit several times, has remained silent thus far.
Neuwirth claims that he was called by New Jersey State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan, ‘for a favor’. That favor was to administer an illegal test to a relative of George Helmy, the Governor’s Chief of Staff.
“The “favor” was for Plaintiff or a member of his staff to go to the home of one of Helmy’s relatives that weekend to collect specimens from two relatives for testing of SARS-COV2 to be performed at DOH’s Public Health and Environmental Laboratories,” the lawsuit states.
Neuwrith said he couldn’t do it. According to the lawsuit, he did not want to participate in this request because, in his reasonable belief, the actions were unethical, unlawful, incompatible with public policy, a misuse of governmental resources and/or misuse of power.
Knowing the seriousness of the request, coming from the state’s top cop, he didn’t want to just say no, so he bought time and told Callahan that he’d see what he could do. Callanan instructed that the test could be taken anytime that weekend. Thinking ahead, he asked Callahan to text him his request and the superintendent did.
The next day, Callahan confronted Neuwirth, agrily, to see why nobody had yet called the Governor’s Chief of Staff George Helmy about the test. Neuwirth told Callahan he did not have anyone available.
Callahan then asked, “So then, this is something you are going to do?”
Neuwirth responded, “Yea, I don’t have a choice.”
Callahan responded, “Thanks Chris. I will let her know.”
Following his communications with Callahan, Neuwrith wrote an email to DOH Chief of Staff, Andrea Meija-Martinez, to disclose the improper request and complain that he was being instructed to perform a private COVID-19 test on relatives of a Governor’s Office employee as “a favor”.
“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,” the email stated. “I’m sharing this with you simply for documentation and, in case, this continues to spiral out of control.”
Callahan continued to press Neuwirth to administer the test.
The next day, while Neuwirth was in the process of obtaining his state vehicle, he said he called Joy Lindo from the DOH Office of Legal and Regulatory Compliance to complain and disclose to her that he had been instructed to perform private COVID-19 tests on relatives of a Governor’s Office employee as “a favor”, which he reasonably believed was unethical, unlawful, incompatible with public policy, a misuse of governmental resources and/or misuse of power.
Lindo agreed with Neuwirth responding, “This is is a textbook ethics violation.”
By now, this issue had made it to the desk of Health Commissioner Judy Persichili, or so Neuwirth thought, but Lndo never informed the commissioner. Neuwirth was directed by Lindo not to do the test and return home.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Neuwirth sought to file a complaint with the state ethics commission. Instead of allowing Neuwirth to file the complaint, the ethics commission warned Neuwirth that there could be consequences for him if he filed his ethics complaint and recommended that he hire a criminal defense attorney.
After being scared, being a father of small children, he did not want to pursue the complaint if he could possibly be charged for doing so, Neuwirth said he would drop the matter. After speaking with a criminal defense attorney, Neuwirth decided he was clear to continue with the charges though.
From that day on, Neuwirth said he was no longer consulted by senior staff members in Murphy’s administration and left out of important meetings and discussions about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Soon after, Neuwirth was blamed for leaking information about the Department of Health’s inadequacies to a local newspaper. He denied his involvement and said he did not know who did it. Eight days later, he was fired by Governor Phil Murphy.
On January 27, 2020, Neuwirth was tasked by the Governor with establishing the DOH Crisis Management Team, authorized the original Coronavirus Response Plan, and served as the initial Incident Commander for the state’s pandemic response, coordinating all DOH activities related to COVID-19.
In April, shortly after top Murphy aide Matt Platkin tested positive for COVID-19, Murphy did not get tested, because state policy to ration tests at that time mandated that a person had to have COVID-19 symptoms in order to be tested.
“It was reported at that time, consistent with New Jersey’s clear mandate of public policy, that Governor Murphy had twice stated in the weeks before April 8, 2020 that he had not been tested because he was not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms and because of a lack of testing supplies,” the lawsuit states. “On April 9, 2020, Governor Murphy confirmed that he had not been tested at that he did not plan on getting tested in light of Mr. Platkin’s positive test. 69. Governor Murphy reasoned that he did not have any symptoms and that he did not go near people.”
When pressed by a reporter as to why Mr. Platkin was able to obtain a test when he was not symptomatic per public policy, Governor Murphy asked, “Why does he get a free pass to do that? We need this guy.”
Later, the state received 15 point-of-care ID NOW testing instruments from the federal government to expand COVID-19 testing.
On May 13, 2020, the State announced that it would be investing hundreds of millions of dollars to expand COVID-19 testing and that the tests would be prioritized for vulnerable populations, their caregivers and frontline workers. 74. At this time, Governor Murphy said that he directed $6 billion in federal funding to Rutgers University to help them scale up — as much as five-fold — production of a saliva-based test kit, allowing it to reach as many as 50,000 people daily.