Committee advances bills based on findings of hiring practices probe

BY Briana Vannozzi, Senior Correspondent |

A package of 10 bills focused on handling harassment complaints and hiring practices in state government sailed through the Assembly Appropriations committee Tuesday with unanimous bipartisan support. It comes just weeks after the legislative Select Oversight Committee investigation found Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration mishandled allegations of rape against a state employee within his gubernatorial transition team.

“At the end of the day we wanted to prove this wasn’t a ‘gotcha’ kind of committee. This was really a committee that we wanted to talk about what happened, right, but we wanted to come out of here with some solid legislation,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, co-chair of the committee.

The bill package includes a requirement for additional training for state employees who handle harassment or discrimination complaints and creates a uniform way to keep written record of each account across all state agencies. There’s also a safeguard for prospective employees during gubernatorial transition — a gap the committee found during its investigation.

“It was clear that that was sort of a gray area in our policy and practice in New Jersey, but we know the campaigns are rife with this environment that sort of blurs the lines with what’s appropriate. There’s lots of after hours convenings, there’s lots of alcohol involved, there’s lots of loose reporting structures and so fine tuning some of that in policy can really make a big impact,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“This is supposed to make it better for all of us no matter who’s in the administration, right? We want to make sure that employees are protected — women are protected and men are protected,” Marin said.

The committee formed after Murphy campaign staffer Katie Brennan took her allegations of rape against another member of the gubernatorial transition team public. Brennan said she was failed by the state in every attempt to report the misconduct. The bills mandate an equal employment opportunity and affirmative action officer to be staffed in every transition team moving forward.

“There were significant failures of leadership by this administration, and bordering on what I think, as our colleagues found, deliberate derelictions of duty,” said Assemblyman Jay Webber.

“It’s kind of sad that we have to legislate something that could have been handled very easily, in my opinion as a former labor commissioner and on a transition team, but here we are and I’ll be a yes vote,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths.

Other changes include a hotline for state workers to report workplace harassment and a requirement for state employee applicants to disclose if they’re under criminal investigation. One final change is with human resource management at the New Jersey Schools Development Authority. The bills need technical amendments before making their way to the Senate. It’s unclear if Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin will post the package for a vote before summer break.