Panel: Gov. Murphy’s staff botched sex assault claim response

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TRENTON -

A state legislative panel investigating Gov. Phil Murphy's handling of a sexual assault claim made by one state worker against another found the administration mishandled its response.

The Legislative Select Oversight Committee voted Wednesday to release its 123-page report.

The investigation stems from Katie Brennan's complaint that emerged in an October newspaper account. Brennan, chief of staff of the state's housing authority, alleged Albert Alvarez sexually assaulted her while they were both working to get Murphy, a Democrat, elected in 2017.

Alvarez, who left as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority last year, denies the allegations. Law enforcement declined to bring charges.

The committee says it found Murphy's administration appeared more concerned with "avoiding negative publicity" than following procedures and should have investigated Brennan's allegations more thoroughly.

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“It was a scar on state government. And it was another sad reminder of conditions, behavior and attitudes that need to change,” says state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, co-chair of the committee.

The committee’s report called the actions of Murphy’s staff “shocking,” “sloppy” and “highly unusual.”

“The transition committee and the administration woefully mishandled the sexual assault allegation. No one conducted a rigorous in-depth examination prior to the hiring of Al. That was a disservice to Ms. Brennan and Mr. Alvarez. The system didn't fail Ms. Brennan. People failed her,” says Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin.

The committee held nine hearings, during which no one could say for certain who hired Alvarez for his six-figure job at the Authority. The report found that Murphy's former chief of staff Peter Cammarano and transition team head Jose Lozano made the decision.

The report also found no evidence that anyone told the governor about the allegations against Alvarez.

“It remains unclear if that environment of suppression is intended to shield Gov. Murphy by providing plausible deniability or if it is simply the result of an implicit understanding that the governor does not want to know the details of unsavory matters that occur under his watch,” says state Sen. Kristin Corrado.

The report recommends that the state strengthen background checks, record keeping rules and discrimination laws to better handle sex assault claims and investigations.

Brennan released a statement following the report that says in part, "The findings of this report confirm what I have known all along--that sexual violence survivors in this state still cannot expect to receive justice. I waved a red flag at every turn of this process, and at every turn, I went unheard.”

"To our lawmakers, you now have a mandate--take meaningful action to create real accountability for perpetrators of sexual violence and for those who would protect them."

“To the Administration, you have a mandate as well, to hold accountable those who failed to take action or actively protected Al Alvarez.”

The Associated Press wire services contributed to this report.

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