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Commission to Investigate Administration’s Actions in Sexual-Assault Case

Legislative group will also review government hiring practices, conduct of background checks, and how criminal justice system handles allegations of sex offenses

NJ Legislature

A special bipartisan legislative commission will investigate the hiring and retention of a former high-level New Jersey official accused of sexually assaulting another state official while the two worked on the Murphy for Governor campaign last year.

The committee, to include Democrats and Republicans of both houses of the Legislature, will also look more generally into the government’s hiring practices, including the conducting of background checks, and the response of the criminal justice system to allegations of sex offenses, according to Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who announced the creation of the panel on Tuesday.

This investigation was prompted by the controversy over the Murphy administration’s hiring of Albert J. Alvarez as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority (SDA) last January despite allegations lodged by Katie Brennan, chief of staff at the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, that Alvarez had sexually assaulted her after a gathering of Murphy campaign workers at a bar in Jersey City in April 2017. There are indications that members of the Murphy transition team knew about this and hired Alvarez anyway and that more than one administration official knew of the complaint. Alvarez was allowed to stay on the state payroll until he resigned October 2, the day The Wall Street Journal reported it contacted him about the allegation.

“The account of the assault on Ms. Brennan was heart wrenching and repulsive,” Sweeney said in a statement announcing the special committee. “The repeated failures of authorities to hear her voice and respond to her attempts to achieve justice made me frustrated and angry. We need a full accounting of what went wrong and what needs to be done so that sexual survivors are heard, that they are treated with respect and compassion, and that they can trust the system to provide justice.”

Sweeney moves fast

Steve Sweeney
Credit: NJTV News
Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, created a bipartisan committee to investigate the handling of the sexual-assault case.

Sweeney created a six-member, bipartisan select committee on investigation to delve into the handling of this case, examine state government’s hiring practices and review the response to assault complaints by the justice system. Later on Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) announced that Assembly members would join the committee as well.

“We expect the full cooperation of the administration so that we can obtain a full accounting and take the necessary actions to prevent these abuses from happening again,” said Sweeney.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced his own investigation on Monday, saying he had hired former state Supreme Court justice and former Attorney General Peter Verniero to head an independent investigation of the Alvarez hiring and that would amount to a “systemic review of hiring and vetting in our transition.”

Alvarez’s is the second troublesome hire for the Murphy administration. Over the summer, the Department of Education hired Marcellus Jackson for a $70,000 job as an aide to the commissioner. Jackson is a former Passaic councilman convicted of taking bribes while in office a decade ago and served about two years in prison. State law requires that anyone convicted of a federal corruption-in-office offense be banned from future public employment. But a prosecutor must make an application for the ban and that did not happen, so a background check on Jackson did not turn up any records indicating he was ineligible for public employment, according to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. Jackson resigned.

Brennan reported the alleged attack to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office when it happened in April 2017, but officials declined to prosecute. Published reports indicate the governor’s transition team was told of the allegation after Murphy won last November. Alvarez, who had not been charged, cleared a background check and was hired for the $140,000-a-year position.

Last March, with both Brennan and Alvarez now working in state government, Brennan told Murphy’s chief counsel, Matt Platkin, that Alvarez had sexually assaulted her, according to The Wall Street Journal. Platkin recused himself and referred the matter to the chief ethics officer in the governor’s office, who in turn referred it to the attorney general’s office. AG spokeswoman Sharon Lauchaire would say only, “We can confirm that the Governor’s Office conveyed information to the Attorney General’s Office regarding Mr. Alvarez. Beyond that we cannot comment on the specifics of the information.”

Murphy: ‘Hang in. We are on it’

Platkin reportedly told Charles McKenna, chief executive of the SDA, last April that Alvarez should leave state employment. Alvarez said he would start looking for a new job but he was still working for the SDA on June 1. At that point, Brennan said she emailed Murphy and his wife asking to discuss a “sensitive matter” and Murphy replied, “Hang in. We are on it.” But he never scheduled that meeting and Alvarez remained employed at the SDA until two weeks ago.

Coughlin said the joint investigative committee will conduct a thorough review to determine what went wrong in the case of Alvarez and how to stop the same thing from happening again.

“This committee will determine why the current system failed Ms. Brennan and what reforms must be enacted,” he said. “Ms. Brennan was remarkably brave to come forward with her heartbreaking account of the assault she endured ... Ms. Brennan deserved to be heard, respected and believed. Unfortunately, that did not happen. I will not allow future victims to be subjected to the same unacceptable response.”

Weinberg: ‘…the system failed Ms. Brennan’

Loretta Weinberg
Credit: NJTV News
Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen)

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who called for the creation of the special committee on Monday and who will chair it, said she wants the committee to examine the practices and procedures of police officers, prosecutors, the courts and defense attorneys, and that she would like to hear from survivors and the advocates who assist them. This will help the committee determine whether the state needs stronger laws, special training for police officers and court officials, and additional safeguards to ensure the proper treatment of assault survivors.

“There is no doubt that the system failed Ms. Brennan, and that the failures occurred at every level,” Weinberg said. “It is painfully obvious that her complaints fell on deaf ears both in the criminal justice system and at the highest levels of government. Clearly, reforms are needed so that no more survivors are forced to endure what Ms. Brennan has experienced.”

In response to the #MeToo movement and sexual-assault allegations from Hollywood to Congress, the Legislature adopted last month a stricter and more comprehensive policy regarding allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. The policy, which covers lawmakers, legislative staff, lobbyists and others who interact with them, prohibits specific types of discrimination and harassment and lays out procedures for the reporting and investigation of complaints.

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