POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Lawmakers from both parties now call for hearings on sex assault charges

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

There is an anger roiling through Trenton’s political establishment, particularly among the women. Less than a month after the Assembly released its new sexual harassment policy, an alleged sexual assault and apparent systemic failure to properly investigate and respond to the alleged victim.

“Furious, disgusted,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, “and then empowered to have read the story of a survivor that lends her name and her face to how the system appears to have let her down in a very dramatic way.”

Why did it take so long for authorities to investigate the matter fully? Why did the Murphy campaign and transition office not share information about the alleged assault with the governor? Most everyone who spoke Monday – the governor included – seemed at a loss as to how a system could so thoroughly mishandle a complaint from an alleged sexual assault victim.

“I’m told now that because the incident happened before anybody was a state employee, that prevented a certain channel of pursuit to occur. I want us to look at that. That shouldn’t be a constraining factor. He works at an authority. Technically, when you work at an authority, you are guided by the governance of that authority. So as influential as the Governor’s Office might be, you’re still under the jurisdiction of that authority. That’s another one that doesn’t feel right to me,” Murphy said.

The governor’s response today – in addition having former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero lead an investigation into the facts – includes having the Division of Equal Employment Opportunity review policies on how the state handles sexual misconduct cases. Also, the governor’s asked the attorney general to evaluate the way law enforcement handles charges like this in the future with an eye toward creating an environment that lets victims feel like they’re being heard.

The Republicans, meanwhile reiterated their calls for full-blown hearings.

“What we’d like to know, and I’d like to know as a legislator, is when someone goes to a prosecutor’s office or goes to an employer, especially an employer who technically is in charge of the state of New Jersey, and/or a transition team, why, for a year, there was no significant response or no satisfaction,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.

Bramnick say he thought Democrats in the Legislature were ready to join in, and from the looks of things Monday, that seems more likely.

“The current system is unacceptable and intolerable. It requires legislative action” said a statement from several high-ranking Assembly Democrats, including speaker Craig Coughlin. “The handling of Ms. Brennan’s allegations must be thoroughly reviewed. So should the system which has ignored her voice. We are committed to both.”

While a statement from high-ranking Senate Democrats, including the Senate president, called for “a full and straightforward accounting”, Senate Majority leader Loretta Weinberg, herself a sexual assault survivor, was more direct.

“Asking leadership to appoint a special committee to have hearings on the whole issue of how the state handles sexual harassment complaints,” she said.

“We failed Katie Brennan in all of this,” Ruiz said. “One thing is to have courage and to step up to the plate. The other thing is to be sure that there’s people there, that are willing to listen, and to understand and to take action.”

The governor’s overseas trip is still on. The probes he ordered should begin immediately. Legislative hearings, if they do come, could take some time to get organized, giving plenty of oxygen to a firestorm of the administration’s own making.