Lawmakers already mulling policy changes after Brennan testimony

It was business as usual at the State House Thursday, with committees from education to transportation going through the usual bills and resolutions. But the buzz from Tuesday’s dramatic opening of the Katie Brennan hearings could still be felt, especially after the governor’s grilling on the matter Wednesday.

But aside from the potential political fallout for the governor from all this, and Brennan’s testimony on Tuesday, the stated purpose of the panel is to find out what policy changes can be made to make sure that what happened to Brennan after the alleged attack doesn’t happen again. On that front, several committee members had plenty to say Thursday.

“The most important take-away thus far is how many times the system failed her,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi. “So here you have a situation where it wasn’t an allegation of, ‘Hey, someone was mean to me on the campaign trail.’ It was, ‘I was sexually assaulted by this person who’s now in charge of personnel decisions and nobody ever took a step to investigate.'”

Schepisi says what she heard was a lack of clarity on whether protocols for follow up were even in place. And that made it possible for someone who had a “curious lack of curiosity” to simply pass the buck.

“It just became a convenient ‘not it,’ ‘hot potato’ type of thing to say, well, you don’t fall specifically into a particular set of rules right now, so we’re not going to do anything on this,” she added.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who was moved to tears several times during the session, said she’s looking forward to a discussion about hiring practices and protocols for background checks and investigations. But, she said, reform needs to begin on the local level.

“One thing that was striking to me was how local police departments handle calls in events of sexual assaults, of victims in that time frame. To hear how the approach was so cold and abrasive, there is a lot of room for improvement,” said Ruiz. “If, in fact, we do in fact have a protocol in place, it’s inherent that we need more training. And if, in fact, we don’t have, I think it’s critical for the state to come up with a uniform policy for police departments.”

Brennan knows her way around the system and has friends in high places, but even that privilege couldn’t help her get through to someone who could help. What, some committee members wondered, could a victim with less access, or a language barrier, for instance, expect in a similar circumstance?

“Why did I have to tell my story to The Wall Street Journal for the administration to acknowledge that it should not have hired Mr. Alvarez. I should not have to be here today,” Brennan said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce says hiring practices for “at will” employees, many in the top rungs of an administration, need reform.

“I think maybe there’s got to be a tighter, more stringent policy put in place in the vetting process of the individuals that would be in those high-ranking positions,” she said.

And that would go to the very heart of how politics works in Trenton. The committee meets again on Dec. 18. No word on who’ll testify next, but invitation letters have gone out to many of the names Brennan mentioned in her testimony this week.

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