In early 2002, McGreevey was criticized for appointing his secret lover, Israeli national Golan Cipel as homeland security adviser even though he lacked experience or other qualifications for the position. Cipel resigned but threats from his lawyers about sexual harassment lawsuits prompted McGreevey to announce, on August 12, 2004, that he was gay and would resign the governorship, effective November 15, 2004. This made McGreevey the first openly gay governor in United States history.
McGreevey attended the General Theological Seminary in New York City to obtain his Master of Divinity degree, a requirement to becoming an Episcopal priest. He volunteered service through Exodus Transitional Community to former prisoners seeking rehabilitation at the Church of Living Hope in New York City. In July 2013, McGreevey was appointed head of Jersey City's Employment & Training Program (JCETP).
McGreevey was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, the son of Veronica, a nurse, and Jack McGreevey, a Marine drill instructor who served in World War II and the Korean War His family was Irish Catholic, and he grew up in nearby Carteret. There he attended St. Joseph Elementary School, and St. Joseph High School in Metuchen. He attended The Catholic University of America before graduating from Columbia University in 1978. He earned a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1981 and a master's degree in education from Harvard University in 1982. He also attended a summer diploma program in law at the London School of Economics.
McGreevey has a daughter, Morag, from his first marriage (1991–1997) to Canadian Karen Joan Schutz. He has another daughter, Jacqueline, from his second marriage to Portuguese-born Dina Matos McGreevey.
Dina Matos and McGreevey separated after he revealed that he was homosexual, and in late 2005 McGreevey and Australian-American executive Mark O'Donnell began a relationship. The two lived in Plainfield, New Jersey. On March 14, 2007, the Associated Press reported that McGreevey was seeking custody of Jacqueline and filing for child support. Matos demanded $600,000 plus alimony. The divorce trial started on May 6, 2008. On August 8, the divorce was granted. McGreevey received joint custody and pays child support. They will also be using a parenting coordinator. Matos was denied alimony. In her memoirs, Matos wrote that she would never have married McGreevey if she had known he was homosexual, nor would she have chosen to have a homosexual man father her child.
In October 2015 McGreevy moved from Plainfield to Jersey City, creating rumors that he may run for mayor, which he denied.
Prior to entering politics, McGreevey was an assistant prosecutor and executive director of the state Parole Board. McGreevey has taught ethics, law and leadership at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.
McGreevey was a member of the New Jersey General Assembly, representing the 19th Legislative District from 1990 to 1992, when he became Mayor of Woodbridge Township, New Jersey. He was re-elected mayor in 1995 and 1999. He was elected to the New Jersey Senate in 1993, simultaneously serving as mayor during the four-year Senate term.
McGreevey first ran for governor in 1997, but was defeated in a close race (47% to 46%) by the incumbent Republican Christine Todd Whitman. Libertarian candidate Murray Sabrin received slightly over 5% of the vote. McGreevey ran for the governorship again in 2001 and won with 56% of the vote, making him the first majority-elected governor since James Florio. His Republican opponent in that race was Bret Schundler. Other candidates in the race included William E. Schluter (Independent), Jerry Coleman (Green), Mark Edgerton (Libertarian), Michael Koontz (Conservative), Costantino Rozzo (Socialist) and Kari Sachs (Socialist Workers).
After being elected to the governorship on his second try (on November 6, 2001), McGreevey inherited a US$5 billion budget deficit. During his term, McGreevey raised the tax on cigarettes and increased the state income tax for the wealthy. Raised as a Roman Catholic but maintaining a pro-choice stance on abortion, he stated as governor that he would not receive Communion at public church services.
Among McGreevey's accomplishments were implementing a stem cell research plan for New Jersey, heavily lobbying for the state's first domestic partnership law for same-sex couples and signing such a law in early 2004.
McGreevey's term was controversial, with questions about the credentials of several of his appointees to pay to play and extortion scandals involving backers and key New Jersey Democratic fundraisers.
McGreevey was criticized for appointing as homeland security adviser Golan Cipel, because he lacked experience or other qualifications for the position. In addition, Cipel could not gain a security approval from the Federal government, as he was Israeli and not a U.S. citizen. McGreevey had met him in Israel during a trip there in 2000.
According to McGreevey in The Confession, The Record was the first newspaper to break the news of a relationship between McGreevey and Cipel. McGreevey brought up Cipel's name six weeks into his administration in a February 14, 2002, interview with The Record's editorial board at its offices saying:
We will not skimp on security. We actually brought on a security adviser from the Israel Defense Forces, probably the best in the world.
The interview prompted news investigation into Cipel's background. On February 21, The Record published a profile of Cipel, calling him a "sailor" and a "poet." The article stated, "Democrats close to the administration say McGreevey and Cipel have struck up a close friendship and frequently travel together", prompting McGreevey's own mother to confront him about his sexual orientation. Various media organizations sent reporters to Israel to ask questions about Cipel and his background.
In August 2002, at McGreevey's request, Cipel stepped down from his position as homeland security adviser.
On the afternoon of August 12, 2004, faced with threats from Cipel's lawyer Allen Lowy that Cipel would file a sexual harassment lawsuit against him in Mercer County Court, McGreevey announced at a press conference, "My truth is that I am a gay American." He also said that he had "engaged in an adult consensual affair with another man" (whom his aides immediately named as Cipel), and that he would resign effective November 15, 2004. New Jersey political circles had speculated about McGreevey's sexual orientation and questions about his relationship with Cipel had been alluded to in the media. McGreevey's announcement made him the first openly gay state governor in United States history. The Star-Ledger won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for its "coverage of the resignation of New Jersey's governor after he announced he was gay and confessed to adultery with a male lover."
McGreevey's decision to delay the effective date of his resignation until after September 3, 2004, avoided a special election in November to replace the governor. Doing so allowed the Democratic Party to retain control of the governorship for the rest (until January 2006) of the 4-year term. It avoided the prospect of a Republican incumbent governor's running in tandem with George W. Bush, which could have helped Bush capture New Jersey's electoral votes. (Bush did not win New Jersey's electoral votes in the 2004 presidential election, but captured 46% of the statewide vote, compared to 40% in the 2000 race, and did win re-election.)
Almost immediately after McGreevey's announcement, New Jersey Republicans and Democrats alike called upon the governor not to wait until November to resign and instead to do so immediately. An editorial in The New York Times read, "Mr. McGreevey's strategy to delay resignation does not serve New Jersey residents well. The state will be led by an embattled governor mired in personal and legal problems for three months."
On September 15, U.S. District Judge Garrett E. Brown, Jr. dismissed Afran v. McGreevey, filed by Green Party lawyers Bruce Afran and Carl J. Mayer, dismissing their claim that the postponement of McGreevey's resignation had left a vacancy, thereby violating New Jersey residents' voting rights. Brown stated that McGreevey "clearly intends to hold office until November 15, 2004. The requirement of holding a special election does not arise. The rights of registered voters are not being violated." Afran re-filed the same suit in Mercer County Superior Court and Judge Linda R. Feinberg heard arguments on October 4, 2004.
Fellow Democrat and New Jersey Senate President Richard Codey took office upon McGreevey's resignation and served the remainder of the term until January 17, 2006. At the time of McGreevey's resignation, the New Jersey State Constitution stipulated that the Senate president retains that position while serving as acting governor. Intense public attention and political pressure directed to the issue of gubernatorial succession in the wake of McGreevey's resignation resulted in a 2006 amendment to the state constitution that created the post of Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey.
In September 2006, McGreevey published a memoir, written with assistance from ghostwriter David France. The memoir was titled The Confession. McGreevey appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on September 19, 2006 to discuss and promote the book. It was the start of a two-month promotion of his memoir.
In The Confession, McGreevey described the duality of his life before he came out as gay: "As glorious and meaningful as it would have been to have a loving and sound sexual experience with another man, I knew I'd have to undo my happiness step by step as I began chasing my dream of a public career and the kind of 'acceptable' life that went with it. So, instead, I settled for the detached anonymity of bookstores and rest stops – a compromise, but one that was wholly unfulfilling and morally unsatisfactory."
McGreevey and his partner Mark O'Donnell regularly attended Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York, in addition to a local parish in New Jersey. At St. Bartholomew's, McGreevey was received into the Episcopal Church on Sunday, April 29, 2007. He was accepted to General Theological Seminary, from which he received the degree of Master of Divinity, a requirement to becoming an Episcopal priest.
In 2009, McGreevey told The New York Times that he is a volunteer for Exodus Ministries, where he performs service to former prisoners seeking rehabilitation at the Church of Living Hope in Harlem, New York. On November 16, 2009 WCBS-TV reported McGreevey was continuing his training at All Saints Episcopal Church in Hoboken where Reverend Geoffrey Curtiss is the Pastor. Reports in April 2011 indicate that McGreevey's bid to be ordained was rejected. McGreevy then worked at Integrity House at the Hudson County Correctional Facility with women inmates with a history of drug use.
McGreevey's life after politics, his calling as a priest and his ministry to prison inmates is covered in a 2013 HBO documentary film, Fall to Grace, directed by Alexandra Pelosi.
In July 2013, McGreevey was appointed executive director of Jersey City's Employment & Training Program (JCETP). The program, which provides re-entry coaching for those released from prison, along with other services, such as job opportunities and training, and substance abuse rehabilitation is based at The Hub in the city's Jackson Hill neighborhood. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop felt as though McGreevey was "a valuable asset" to have in this position relating to his ten plus years working within the government. Also having first hand experiences with helping the population of those previously incarcerated by serving as a mentor and spiritual counselor to women at the Hudson County Jail adds to his qualifications for the executive director position. Among those at the September 2014 opening of the facility called Martin's Place(located on the major street of Martin Luther King Drive) were Brendan Byrne, Tom Kean, Steve Fulop, Chris Christie, Robert Menendez, Nancy Pelosi and Cornell William Brooks. The prisoner re-entry program, funded by the New Jersey Parole Board with a $4.2 million grant, is located in Sacred Heart Church, also in the neighborhood, in 2015. The program is a model for a statewide program to be expanded in 2015, initially to 4 other counties.