State lawmakers are looking to create a tough new penalty for public officials who commit a sexual assault or similar offense in the workplace. The effort comes as a report is still pending from a special legislative panel reviewing an alleged rape that has rocked Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.
The key feature of legislation that has already been approved by the full Assembly and is now on the move in the Senate is a proposal to take the full pension benefits away from any elected official or public worker who is found guilty of a sexual assault or related offense that somehow involves their official position.
Such an approach generally has been used only to punish officials for offenses related to public corruption.
The pension-forfeiture bill was introduced several months before a member of the Murphy administration came forward last year with claims that a former administration official had sexually assaulted her in 2017. But that case has brought new attention to the issue of sexual assault in Trenton, triggering special investigations by both the governor and a select committee of lawmakers.
Sen. Kristin Corrado, the bill’s prime sponsor and a member of the select committee, said the state needs to send a strong message to discourage public servants from crossing the line.
“This shouldn’t happen and it’s not OK,” said Corrado (R-Passaic) about cases of sexual assault involving public officials.
Current forfeiture law covers things like bribery
Under current law, elected officials or public workers who commit offenses like bribery and official misconduct are stripped of their taxpayer-funded retirement benefits once they have either been found guilty by a court or have pleaded guilty before a judge. The grounds for pension forfeiture would be expanded to include the offenses of sexual assault, sexual contact and lewdness. But it would not apply to sexual harassment offenses, according to the latest version of the bill, which was recently approved by the Senate state government committee.
The forfeiture would be enforced when the offense is “related directly to the person’s performance” in their public position, according to the bill. But it could also be triggered if the activity involves “circumstances flowing from, the specific public office or employment held by the person.”
The measure, which is likely to come up for a vote in the full Senate in a matter of weeks, was first introduced in April 2018 as lawmakers were responding to the public-awareness campaign concerning sexual-assault fostered by the #MeToo movement. The enhanced public scrutiny has resulted in several high-profile figures losing their jobs or positions, including members of Congress and prominent figures in the media and entertainment industries, such as film producer Harvey Weinstein.
The issue took on new meaning in New Jersey after sexual-assault allegations were leveled against Al Alvarez, a former high-ranking Murphy administration official, in a Wall Street Journal news story in October 2018. In the story, Katie Brennan, a former Murphy campaign volunteer who now serves as the chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, said Alvarez, who went on to become chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, drove her home and raped her following a gathering of campaign staffers and volunteers in April 2017 in Jersey City.
Alvarez has strongly denied the allegations through an attorney and was never charged with a crime even though two different county prosecutor’s offices investigated Brennan’s claims. He stepped down from his position at the SDA in October 2018, just before the newspaper story was published.
Need to overhaul many state regulations
To be sure, the pension-forfeiture legislation likely wouldn’t apply in the case because the alleged rape occurred well before either was hired by the administration. But Corrado and other sponsors of the bill have stressed the need to overhaul a host of state regulations related to sexual assault as part of a broader effort to discourage such behavior. The select committee is expected to make a series of policy recommendations in a report that will be issued after it finishes hearing from witnesses.
After the scandal broke, Murphy announced that former state Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero would be conducting an outside investigation on behalf of his administration to determine the circumstances surrounding Alvarez’s hiring. Around the same time, the Legislature approved its own investigation (using a select committee of members from both parties and both houses).
The legislative hearings are ongoing, with lawmakers taking testimony just last week from a legal expert who suggested Murphy’s transition and administration mishandled the case. The lawmakers also took public testimony from Brennan late last year.
Corrado said she initially sponsored the pension-forfeiture bill after hearing about elected officials and other public servants getting in trouble but oftentimes “walking away with a slap on the wrist.” Sitting on the Legislature’s select committee has only made her “more aware” of instances where sexual misconduct is taking place in government, Corrado said.
“I think we have to make (the penalty) substantial,” she said.
Meanwhile, Verniero already detailed the results of his investigation in a report that was released last month. The report said top Murphy aides mishandled the allegations and it second-guessed their decision to keep the matter secret from the governor until just before Brennan came forward publicly. But it didn’t identify who actually hired Alvarez, a mystery that lawmakers also have yet to solve.