Gov. Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, will step down this month to work for Cooper University Hospital in Camden, nearly a year after the governor named O’Dowd his pick for attorney general.
O’Dowd, whose selection as attorney general never moved forward after controversy arose over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, will serve as senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper, where he will focus on business development, Christie officials said. He will start at Cooper in January.
In a telephone interview, Christie said O’Dowd told him two or three weeks ago he had received the job offer from Cooper and was thinking about it.
“Kevin and I both decided this was the next best step for his future,” Christie said. “He served me extraordinarily well for 11 years. I don’t think I can ask a whole lot more out of somebody.”
O’Dowd, a former federal prosecutor, also worked for Christie while the future governor was U.S. attorney for New Jersey.
“It was an honor and a privilege to serve the people of the State of New Jersey for the last five years,” O’Dowd said in a statement. “While I will miss interacting with my colleagues in the executive and legislative branches, I am very much looking forward to joining the Cooper team and beginning the next phase of my career.”
O’Dowd’s wife, Mary, serves as commissioner of the state Department of Health.
Christie said the prospect that his chief of staff would face questions about the bridge scandal during a confirmation process before a Democratic-controlled Senate “didn’t play a role in this at all.” He noted that O’Dowd had already faced hours of questions about the matter from a legislative committee.
Christie, a Republican, has sought to move past the bridge scandal as he considers running for president in 2016.
O’Dowd testified before the committee in June that he had played no role in the September 2013 lane closures, which jammed traffic in Fort Lee. Lawmakers questioned why O’Dowd hadn’t asked more questions about the controversy, which erupted in January after documents revealed that a now-fired Christie aide, Bridget Kelly, had sent an e-mail calling for “traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
O’Dowd, who supervised Kelly, was never directly implicated in the controversy.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he approached O’Dowd around the time of his testimony to ask whether he wanted to be attorney general.
“I said, ‘Kevin, what are you going to do?’ ” Sweeney said. “He said, ‘Steve, I just want to move on.’ ”
Sweeney added, “If Kevin wanted to be attorney general, he would be the attorney general right now. He had the votes to get passed. I was extremely supportive and would have testified in favor of him.”
A confirmation hearing “wouldn’t have been horribly contentious,” Sweeney said, noting that O’Dowd was well-respected in the Legislature and had already testified before the investigative committee.
Sweeney described O’Dowd’s departure as an end of an era and added, “I trust him with my life.”
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) praised O’Dowd as “a person of compromise” who would be “sorely missed.”
Over the summer, Christie publicly supported O’Dowd for attorney general but said O’Dowd needed to determine what he wanted to do.
At Cooper, O’Dowd’s focus will include the MD Anderson Cooper cancer partnership and the AmeriHealth New Jersey relationship, Christie officials said. He will also oversee marketing, human resources, compliance oversight, and corporate real estate development.
Adrienne Kirby, Cooper’s chief executive officer and president, praised O’Dowd’s “proven track record of strong management, development and implementation of strategic plans, as well as improving organization performance and productivity.”
O’Dowd’s arrival will be the latest management shake-up at Cooper.
Kirby took over as CEO after her predecessor, John Sheridan, and his wife, Joyce, died Sept. 28 in a mysterious house fire. The case remains under investigation.
Cooper spokeswoman Lori Shaffer said O’Dowd’s hiring was unrelated to Sheridan’s death.
Cooper does not disclose employee salaries, she said. O’Dowd made $141,000 as Christie’s chief of staff.
In the interview, Christie said he never spoke with George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper’s board of trustees and South Jersey Democratic leader, about O’Dowd’s move.
“Obviously, Kevin has had a relationship with a number of folks in South Jersey,” including Norcross, Sweeney, and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D., Camden), Christie said.
Revenue at Cooper University Health Care will surpass $1 billion this year, and O’Dowd is the “perfect choice” to manage its growth, Norcross said in a statement.
Christie said he would consider making another nomination for attorney general, “now that Kevin has taken himself out of the running.” John Hoffman has served as acting attorney general since June 2013, when then-Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa was appointed to the U.S. Senate.
Regina Egea, director of the authorities unit, will replace O’Dowd as chief of staff at the end of the month.
O’Dowd, 42, who lives in Princeton, has been Christie’s chief of staff since January 2012. He previously served as deputy chief counsel to Christie, starting in 2010.
O’Dowd worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey from 2003 to 2010, including as chief of the office’s Securities and Healthcare Fraud Unit. He also served as chair of the office’s Healthcare Fraud Task Force. He twice received the integrity award from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
He was educated at Catholic University of America and St. John’s University School of Law.