TRENTON – The long-promised independent review of how New Jersey’s state government handled the COVID-19 pandemic is getting underway, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday.

Murphy announced that the review will be led by a team at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, a law firm based in Philadelphia that also has offices at four other locations, including Cherry Hill. The firm will work with the Boston Consulting Group, one of the "Big Three" management consulting firms.

The Murphy administration said New Jersey is the first state to commission an independent and comprehensive review on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Murphy has been promising such a review since 2020 but has said it would have to wait until the pandemic relented.

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“My responsibility as governor … demands a full and comprehensive review of how the state was prepared for and responded to the pandemic, so that we can take the steps to better prepare future administrations for a public health crisis,” Murphy said.

“While COVID-19 is still present in our state, nation, and world, we have moved from the pandemic to the endemic phase, and now is the right time to undertake such an independent review," he said.

A group of five Democratic state senators said they welcome the outside review but would move forward with proposed changes such as moving the operational management of the state's veterans' homes to a Cabinet-level department.

"We can’t shy away from any hard lessons that will help gain a full understanding of the successes and shortcomings in managing what was an unprecedented public health crisis," said the group, which included Sens. Joe Vitale, Joe Cryan, Vin Gopal, Joe Lagana and Patrick Diegnan.

“We believe that we still must move forward with thorough, institutional reforms at the state-run veterans' homes that suffered tragic losses during the heat of the pandemic and continue to experience reoccurring problems that compromise the health and safety of the residents," they said.

Who will conduct the review?

Paul Zoubek, who was first assistant attorney general during the administrations of Govs. Christie Whitman and Donald DiFrancesco, both Republicans, will lead the review. He is the co-chair of Montgomery McCracken’s White Collar and Government Investigations Practice Group.

Zoubek worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office from 1987 to 1997, eventually serving as criminal division deputy chief. He was a state prosecutor from 1997 to 2002, as director of the Division of Criminal Justice before becoming first assistant attorney general. He has been at Montgomery McCracken for 20 years.

While working for the state, Zoubek was at the Department of Law and Public Safety during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Last year, Zoubek conducted a review of the New Jersey State Police’s boxing program, after a recruit died following a bout at the Sea Girt training academy.

“As a widely respected, apolitical and experienced state and federal prosecutor, Paul Zoubek is exactly the right person to lead this review, and has the experience in emergency management and government investigations that makes him perfectly suited for this task,” Murphy said.

The review is expected to take about a year. The report at the end is due to contain recommendations to enhance the state's preparedness for a future public health crisis.

The review will examine prominent emergency policy decisions and the pandemic response with respect to vulnerable residents, including residents of nursing homes and other congregate care settings.

The federal government last week said it would no longer cover any new admittances to the state’s Menlo Park veterans’ home over concerns about the quality of care. The state deployed a team of experts to help improve the nursing home.

COVID's death toll in NJ

More than 35,000 people have died in New Jersey due to the pandemic, including 31,977 confirmed deaths and 3,116 probable deaths as of Monday. Those include more than 9,000 associated with long-term care facilities: 8,924 residents and 139 staff.

The review will also examine the management of public health aspects of the pandemic, including testing, vaccinations, personal protective equipment procurement and distribution and coordination of the health care system and of health information.

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