New Jersey is on the verge of establishing a tough new financial penalty for public officials who commit a sexual assault or similar offense in the workplace.
A bipartisan bill that lawmakers sent to Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday would come down hard on any public worker or elected official who is convicted of sexual assault, sexual contact or lewdness by stripping them of a taxpayer-funded pension.
Such an approach generally has been used in New Jersey only to punish officials for offenses related to public corruption. But sponsors of the pension-forfeiture bill, which passed the Senate unanimously yesterday, have pointed to an increased need to discourage sexual misconduct in the workplace in the wake of the #MeToo social media campaign, which has raised awareness across the country.
The bill’s advancement out of the Legislature also comes just weeks after lawmakers held their last hearing on a high-profile case involving an allegation of rape against a former high-ranking member of Murphy’s administration. A final report from a special legislative committee that probed the case is still pending.
“Public service is about helping people and making the state you work for a better, safer place for all,” Sen. Kristin Corrado, a prime sponsor of the pension-forfeiture bill, said yesterday.
They ‘shouldn’t be paid by the state for life’
“Anyone who commits a crime that is contrary to that mission, whether it’s an ethics violation or a sex offense, shouldn’t be paid by the state for life,” said Corrado (R-Passaic).
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 bill approved by the Senate yesterday in a 37-0 vote would expand the grounds for pension forfeiture to include those who have been convicted of sexual assault, sexual contact and lewdness. 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 was introduced last spring as lawmakers were responding to the public-awareness campaign concerning sexual-assault 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 a rape allegation was 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.
A need to overhaul state regulations
Alvarez has strongly denied the allegation 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.
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 Murphy administration. But Corrado, who served on the special legislative committee, 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.
“This legislation is a strong step forward in our fight to protect our employees, protect our taxpayers, and restore public trust in government,” she said yesterday. “I hope the Governor does the right thing and signs it immediately.”
Lawmakers who sponsored the bill in the Assembly, where it passed last year with a 79-0 margin, also weighed in yesterday as the measure advanced to Murphy’s desk.
“This piece of legislation could not come at a more appropriate time,” said Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington). “With campaigns such as the #MeToo Movement being so prominent, it is important that we protect our constituents as well as reassure them that their voices are being heard, and those representing their voices reflect the same values they embody.”
“This bill will help to show our citizens that, in New Jersey, we are taking action,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden).
For his part, Gov. Murphy has also signaled his general support for the #MeToo movement and First lady Tammy Murphy was among those who shared a #MeToo story publicly last year. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the pension-forfeiture bill yesterday.