‘At each turn my pleas for help went unanswered…’
(Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer) A staffer for Democrat New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told lawmakers Tuesday that high-ranking members of Murphy’s campaign and administration, including the governor himself, failed to act when she tried to alert them about a fellow campaign aide who she says raped her.
“I had access to people in the highest positions of power in the state of New Jersey,” Katie Brennan, chief of staff for the state’s housing agency, said at a legislative hearing in Trenton. “And at each turn my pleas for help went unanswered.”
Brennan, 31, gave her account of the alleged sexual assault, and subsequent efforts to alert Murphy campaign aides and administration officials, this fall to The Wall Street Journal. But her public testimony made for an extraordinary moment in Trenton.
The story engulfed Murphy in his first big scandal since he took office in January. Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, formed a special committee to investigate the hiring of the accused aide, Al Alvarez and, more broadly, hiring practices in state government.
In addition to hearing testimony from Brennan, the committee is expected to call several high-ranking Murphy administration officials. That would create new headaches for the administration and possibly threaten Murphy’s political standing. He has clashed repeatedly with legislative leaders, who have demonstrated little interest in pursuing the governor’s agenda.
It’s all the more striking given that Murphy campaigned as an unabashed progressive and advocate of women’s rights—and yet, his administration ended up hiring an accused rapist to a high-ranking position.
“I thought if any administration could make progressive reforms, it would be this one,” Brennan testified Tuesday, explaining why she reached out to the governor directly in June 2018.
Brennan told the Journal that she was allegedly assaulted in April 2017 in her apartment by Alvarez, who was the campaign’s director of Muslim and Latino outreach. The following is Brennan’s account of the incident, as reported by the newspaper: Alvarez gave her a ride to her apartment in Jersey City following a bar outing among campaign workers. Alvarez said he wanted to use the bathroom and get a drink of water, then attacked her. She managed to get away and lock herself in the bathroom. He left.
Alvarez has denied the allegations.
Brennan contacted the police the next day, and the Hudson County prosecutor’s office began an investigation. It later declined to prosecute. The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office is now conducting an investigation, after Hudson prosecutors said their office had a conflict of interest.
In late November 2017, after Murphy had been elected, Brennan said she allowed a friend—and now high-ranking administration official—to inform Murphy’s transition team that Alvarez might be arrested.
The prosecutor’s office declined to pursue the case, and Alvarez was named chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, which manages the construction of school facilities.
Brennan, who in February became chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, testified that she told Murphy’s chief counsel, Matt Platkin, about the alleged assault in March.
The following month, the governor’s chief ethics officer informed Brennan that the administration couldn’t fire Alvarez because neither he nor Brennan was a state employee at the time of the alleged assault.
“Once again, no action,” Brennan told lawmakers. “Once again, my voice went unheard.”
In June, Brennan emailed the governor and his wife, Tammy Murphy, to request a meeting. She cited a “sensitive matter,” without disclosing the assault.
The governor wrote back within the hour, telling Brennan to “hang in. We are on it.” Murphy has said he wasn’t made aware of the allegations until October, when the Journal contacted the governor’s office.
No meeting was scheduled, but within days, Jonathan Berkon, an attorney who had served as a lawyer on the campaign, told Brennan that Alvarez would be leaving the administration. Berkon would not say why Alvarez was leaving, calling it a human resources matter, Brennan testified.
By September, though, Alvarez was still employed by the state. “My only power left was my voice,” Brennan said. “I told my story to The Wall Street Journal.”
The governor and his wife told the newspaper that they were confident the administration had handled the allegation “appropriately,” but that it was clear the transition team made a mistake in hiring Alvarez, who resigned in October when the Journal contacted him.
At an October press conference, Murphy announced he had ordered an independent investigation and said he felt “awful” for Brennan.
“Nobody deserves this,” Murphy said. “She’s been screaming out for help and she didn’t get it. And whether it’s reviewing the laws, the policies, who did what when, criminal justice reform, we’re just not good enough.”
Brennan said she didn’t understand why it took so long to get that acknowledgement. “Why did I have to tell my story to The Wall Street Journal for the administration to acknowledge it should not have hired Mr. Alvarez?” she asked.
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