Report: Mishandled sexual assault fault of ‘failed’ system

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

The taxpayer-funded report contains no smoking guns and no big surprises. Instead, the bottom line of a months-long investigation into the hiring practices by Gov. Murphy’s transition team was: “The system failed and is in need of reform.” It’s a conclusion some Democrats called unacceptable.

Murphy commissioned the report by former Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero’s law firm after a political scandal exploded around Katie Brennan’s allegation of sexual assault against Al Alvarez during the 2017 campaign.

Both had been hired by the Murphy administration, but Brennan went to the press last fall after she claims her complaints went ignored by the transition and the administration for months.

Verniero’s report says the transition team should have tried to interview both Brennan and Alvarez “in an attempt to gain more information on which to base an investigation, before Mr. Alvarez advanced into state service … ”

But ultimately, investigators couldn’t even determine who actually hired Alvarez for his $140,000 a year state job, calling it, “ … a foregone conclusion based on his affiliation with the Murphy campaign and the transition office.”

The report noted Murphy didn’t appear to be involved in the issue and didn’t know about the rape allegations until last October but that his staff could’ve told him sooner because “ … confidentiality rules contain sufficient leeway for a governor to be informed of allegations involving a senior member of the executive branch.”

They also said although the transition office “ … acted in good faith … under their best judgment and understanding of existing law,” the transition suffered from “a highly compressed timeframe,” confidentiality constraints and lack of follow-through.

It suggested transition teams need more time and resources to make careful hires and strongly recommended that all workers in the transition office should be considered full state employees that are entitled to all protections and regulations.

In response, Murphy said the report ” … contains hard truths that my Administration must fully accept and also highlights structural issues with gubernatorial transitions that merit reform. I agree with all the corrective actions Justice Verniero recommends, and I will work collaboratively with the Legislature and others to ensure their adoption. Knowing what I know now, I wish I was informed earlier by my team about Ms. Brennan’s allegations … ”

Verniero released his report only hours after the Murphy administration issued a new, revised set of guidelines for handling allegations of sexual misconduct — an updated version ordered by the governor in the wake of the Brennan scandal and against the backdrop of legislative Select Oversight Committee hearings into the same issues.

“The report appears to make more of an effort to exonerate the principals who were involved or should have been involved than it does to shed light on this case,” said committee co-chair Sen. Loretta Weinberg. “There is no accountability and no one willing or able to take responsibility.”

The revised policies, compiled by the state Division of Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action, mirror many recommendations in the Verniero report. They explicitly add gubernatorial transition office employees and job applicants, broaden the definition of “sexual assault” and clarify reporting guidance.

But the revisions stop short of letting state employees who are victims speak about the state’s investigations into their complaints, according to Katie Brennan’s attorney, who is suing the state over how it handled her complaints.

“Requiring survivors to keep their complaints confidential is a gross violation of their constitutional and statutory rights. We look forward to the Joint Select Oversight Committee continuing its work and making recommendations in this regard,” said Brennan’s attorney Katy McClure.

The rules now must be formally adopted and implemented. The Select Oversight Committee expects to issue a report before budget hearings gear up in March. How it’ll impact any new rules is to be announced.