POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Murphy calls for investigation into sexual assault allegation against former staffer

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy reacted earnestly to staffer Katie Brennan’s point-blank accusation: “On April 8, 2017, Al Alvarez raped me,” Brennan said in a statement. Details from an explosive Wall Street Journal article note that, after a Murphy campaign get-together, Alvarez — a former campaign coordinator — asked to use the bathroom at Brennan’s apartment, then allegedly attacked her.

According to her report, he “ … pulled down her white V-neck T-shirt in order to put his mouth on her breasts before reaching behind her and shoving his hand down her pants and putting his fingers inside her. … I say, ‘Stop, why are you doing this?’ … And then I straight up said: ‘This is not consensual.’”

Brennan claims she kicked Alvarez away and that he left. She later filed a police report, and went to the hospital for a rape exam. But after Alvarez was hired to head the state Schools Development Authority, Brennan repeatedly attempted over several months to alert first the Murphy transition team, and then the administration, of the alleged assault. It ultimately caused her to declare, “I have pursued every form of justice available. But it has become clear that this system is not built for survivors.”

“The big sickness that I have is that this ever happened to Katie, and that we made a big mistake in the transition in hiring,” Murphy said. “Within that context, it was handled appropriately. It certainly wasn’t handled appropriately in the sense that she felt like she got her proper hearing in the prosecutorial sense.”

The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office declined to pursue charges against Alvarez, telling Brennan her case wasn’t strong enough. The Governor’s Office says Alvarez passed two background checks. It wasn’t until April that the governor’s chief counsel reportedly advised that Alvarez should resign. He did, but not until Oct. 2 when The Wall Street Journal called him for comment. His attorney John Hogan claims Alvarez “absolutely, positively denies these allegations of sexual assault.”

Murphy insists he didn’t know about the allegations until October and simply followed the rules of confidentiality.

“Current policies and procedures were properly and promptly followed and adhered to. But that is no longer enough,” said Murphy.

In fact, Brennan stated, “Several senior level members of the Murphy administration were aware of my assault and failed to take meaningful action.” She continued, “The failure of members of Gov. Murphy’s staff to respond in an aggressive, proactive fashion is unacceptable.”

To that end, Murphy has asked former NJ Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero to investigate Brennan’s case and how the hire happened.

“I want to make sure she understands that we’re going to do a real, independent investigation, led by someone who’s got credibility,” Murphy said. “Peter Verniero is as highly qualified as a lawyer, particularly qualified on doing investigations like this. This will be no whitewash. … We want New Jersey to be a place where victims like Katie can feel like they can stand up and be heard, believed.”

The governor said he and his wife would be reaching out to Brennan in a phone call Monday. There’s no deadline on the Verniero investigation. Murphy also wants investigations into hiring practices and to prosecutions of sexual assault.