Katie Brennan’s testimony could have major political implications for Murphy

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy put out a statement after the Select Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday afternoon.

It read, “I watched Ms. Brennan’s opening statement today, and I commend the courage, bravery, and leadership she showed in telling her story. She is right: no one should have to go through an ordeal to have their voices heard. We must stand with survivors of sexual assault, and we must start from a place of believing the accuser.”

That said, this episode is being called the first scandal of the Murphy administration.

Murphy isn’t accused of anything concrete, but his operation, his apparatus, dropped the ball on Katie Brennan.

She is a valued staffer. She says she was raped by another staffer, and nothing gets done about it. It makes the administration look inept, something their rivals in the Democratic Party have been saying for a while.

We asked some of our journalistic colleagues what’s at stake for Murphy politically in this Katie Brennan case.

“Well, I think at a minimum it looks bad that he didn’t respond,” said Tom Moran, a political columnist for The Star-Ledger. “We will probably learn about some legal restraints that prevented him from responding, from firing this guy, given that he wasn’t charged or convicted of a crime. But the worst thing, on the other end of the spectrum, is that we don’t know if Murphy was telling the truth in October when he said I didn’t know about this when several of his top people did know about it. The campaign for the attorney knew about it, Pete Cammarano knew about it, Matt Platkin, two of his senior people knew about it. It strains credibility for many people I’ve talked to to suggest the governor didn’t know about this, and if he did know about it and didn’t act, then he’s in serious political trouble because he already has poisoned his relationships with the Legislature. His real strength now, his remaining strength, is he’s relatively popular among his liberal base, so this would go directly to that remaining strength.”

“I think this is a scandal,” said Politifax editor Nick Acocella. “It seems to me that the system failed Katie Brennan at every level. Some people will be able to explain why their piece of the system failed, but when you put together the whole structure, it’s an absolute horror, an absolute horror. Yes, of course, it’s a scandal.”

The likely outcome?

“At the very, very least I would hope legislation along the lines of what Ms. Brennan described about how better to handle things like this. At the worst, it could blow up the administration,” Acocella said.

In his statement Tuesday, Murphy pointed to the attorney general’s new sexual assault directive that came out last week. It’s all about supporting the victim.

Here’s what he said on camera about the case Monday:

“Listen, she’s a valued member of our administration. She does really important work, I have enormous regard for her, and I feel busted up about what’s happened to her. That’s been my view from the moment I found out what happened here. So God bless her. I think we’re both trying to seek the same things here. New Jersey, maybe America more broadly, but we’re in New Jersey, that we can be in a far better place as it relates to survivors and victims of sexual assault. Again, there are a number of ways you get there. I was very encouraged by the comprehensive plan on that path, or set of procedures and laws, really more procedures, that the attorney general put out last week and we need to continue on that path,” he said.

He says all the right things. We’ll see what the fallout may be.