Two branches of state government are bending over backwards to convince the public that they expect New Jersey to be more responsive to women who are victims of sexual assault. Yet testimony from an alleged victim who works in the government held the Legislature spellbound yesterday, as she described her assault and the subsequent indifference to her complaints.
A special legislative committee held a lengthy meeting yesterday to hear testimony about events that happened after an alleged rape involving two former staffers who served on Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign last year. The governor himself issued a statement of support for the alleged victim that reiterated his commitment to improving state government’s approach to such incidents.
The testimony from alleged victim Katie Brennan came as she appeared for the first time before the joint legislative committee that is reviewing her case. Brennan told the lawmakers she was constantly afraid of running into her alleged attacker in Trenton after they both went on to get jobs in the Murphy administration this year — even after she sounded numerous alarms about his conduct. In a particularly poignant moment, she said she persisted through an extremely difficult situation because she didn’t believe her alleged rapist’s career goals should trump hers.
The high-profile legislative review is taking place even as Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has launched his own in-house investigation amid what’s become a growing scandal.
Potential to damage Murphy
Both probes are aimed at modernizing state employment and investigation protocols amid the #MeToo movement, which has brought new attention to sexual-assault cases across the country. But the public nature of the legislative review has the potential to embarrass — and even damage — the Murphy administration as lawmakers sift through exactly how Brennan, who serves as the chief of staff of the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, was forced to work for months in the same administration as the man she first accused of raping her in April 2017.
“I was so nervous,” Brennan said yesterday during the hearing. “You know there’s a couple hangout spots in Trenton and I feared that I’d see him when I popped into a building, or Starbucks, or whatever it may be.”
“I was terrified of running into him, let alone being scheduled to be in a meeting with him,” she went on to say.
In a statement issued later yesterday, Murphy praised Brennan for coming forward publicly and also highlighted a recent law-enforcement directive issued by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that enhanced the handling of sexual-assault cases across the state.
“No one should have to go through an ordeal to have their voices heard,” Murphy said. “We must stand with survivors of sexual assault, and we must start from a place of believing the accuser.”
Alleged assault in April 2017
While rumors had been swirling for weeks in Trenton about a brewing scandal, Brennan’s allegations against former Schools Development Authority chief of staff Al Alvarez finally became public in a Wall Street Journal story in early October. In the story, she said Alvarez drove her home and raped her following a gathering of campaign staffers and volunteers in April 2017 in Jersey City.
Alvarez, who has strongly denied the allegations through an attorney, went on to play a key role in the Murphy transition even as he was reportedly being investigated by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. Alvarez was never charged, but he stepped down in early October 2018 after the Wall Street Journal contacted him for comment on Brennan’s allegations. (The case has since been reopened and transferred to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.)
Yesterday, Brennan described how she ultimately decided to go public with her story after reaching out to numerous officials in either the Murphy transition or the administration, including the governor himself, without getting what she thought was a strong enough response.
“I just think they didn’t take it seriously enough,” Brennan said yesterday.
At one point during the hearing, an email she sent to Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy in June where she sought a meeting to discuss “something that happened during the campaign” was read aloud.
The governor responded to the email, which was sent to his personal account, by telling her “we’re on it.”
‘…they thought it was resolved’
But Brennan said the next communication she received was from an attorney who represented the 2017 campaign effort, indicating Alvarez would be leaving the Murphy administration. She said the attorney, Jonathan Berkon, declined to discuss the reason for his departure, citing “HR reasons.”
Lawmakers and attorneys for the special committee seemed to home in on that sequence yesterday, asking how it came to be that a lawyer for the Murphy campaign followed up on the email she sent directly to the governor. They also noted that Murphy had copied governor’s office scheduling staff on his response to Brennan, leaving the impression the administration would be more closely involved.
“At that point, did you think you were going to have a scheduled meeting with the governor?” asked Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic).
“I did,” responded Brennan.
“Did you ever get that meeting?” asked Corrado.
“I did not,” Brennan said, before adding that she never got a full explanation of why she didn’t get the meeting.
“Jonathan Berkon reached out to me and then I thought they thought it was resolved,” she said.
After the newspaper story in October, Murphy held a news conference to announce the launching of the internal investigation — which is being led by former state Attorney General Peter Verniero. At the news conference, the governor acknowledged that he had interacted with Brennan via email and suggested the matter was referred to campaign officials since the alleged incident occurred before he was governor. He also said he didn’t know the full details of Brennan’s ordeal until just recently.
Why she stayed on
Yesterday Brennan testified that she was told by Heather Taylor, chief ethics officer in the governor’s office, that the matter could not be pursued further by the administration because the alleged attack occurred before Brennan and Alvarez were state employees.
In one of the more compelling moments of the hearing, Brennan explained why she stayed on as an employee of the Murphy administration despite having to deal with the extremely uncomfortable situation of possibly running into her alleged attacker during the normal course of a workday.
“I should not be the one to give up my career goals in favor of the career goals of my rapist,” Brennan said.
The legislative committee is scheduled to meet again on December 18, but its leaders said they haven’t decided who they will call to testify next. Alvarez has been invited to appear before the committee, but the panel has yet to receive an official response, they said.
No decision on other witnesses
Other administration officials who are among the possible next witnesses are those Brennan said she personally notified of her ordeal prior to telling Murphy. They include chief counsel Matt Platkin and deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs Justin Braz. The leaders of the committee also did not rule out calling Murphy himself to appear before the committee.
“I don’t think that anything is ruled out at this point,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), a co-chair of the panel.
Several lawmakers praised Brennan yesterday for her courage and poise, including co-chair Loretta Weinberg, a longtime Democratic senator from Bergen County who on social media several weeks ago revealed her own experience of sexual assault.
“I didn’t know at the time that I should do anything, and I didn’t know at the time that I could do anything,” Weinberg said. “So if we’ve moved ahead at least you know that you can, and you know certainly that you should, and I think the deliberations of this committee is a tribute to that.”