Murphy orders investigation into how NJ hired man accused of rape
Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday he has commissioned three separate inquiries in the wake of rape allegations against a former campaign staffer brought by a volunteer – and questions about why the man was hired for jobs with the transition and administration anyway.
“Let me absolutely and unequivocally clear: This should never have happened,” Murphy said of the hiring of Albert Alvarez, the person accused by Katie Brennan. “In this instance, the hiring process of the transition did not reflect our values or the seriousness with which we believe allegations of assault should be taken. Period.”
The main investigation will be an independent, systemic review of the hiring and vetting practices of Murphy’s transition office, to be completed by year’s end and headed by Peter Verniero and his law firm, Sills Cummis & Gross. Verniero is a former gubernatorial chief of staff and chief counsel, state attorney general and state Supreme Court justice.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal will also review whether changes need to be made to how prosecutors investigate sexual assault allegations, and the state Civil Service Commission will analyze what changes in state policies should be considered.
“We want New Jersey to be a place where victims like Katie could feel like they can stand up and be heard, believed,” Murphy said.
“I feel awful for Katie. Nobody deserves this. She’s been screaming out for help, and she didn’t get it. And whether it’s reviewing, as I said, the laws, the policies, who did what when, criminal justice reform, we’re just not good enough,” he said.
The allegations by Brennan, which were detailed in a Sunday story by the Wall Street Journal, against Alvarez were brought to the attention of Hudson County prosecutors in April 2017, a day after the incident in question. No charges were brought, but state prosecutors said Monday the case has now been referred to Middlesex County prosecutors for another look.
Brennan said she told Murphy’s transition team about the allegations, but Alvarez – who was deputy director for personnel for the transition, after being director of Latino outreach for the Murphy campaign – was nevertheless hired as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority. Brennan is now chief of staff at the state Housing & Mortgage Finance Agency.
Brennan then emailed Murphy directly in June, asking for a meeting to discuss a sensitive matter related to the campaign. Murphy directed it to a campaign lawyer and said the matter was referred to the attorney general within 24 hours of Brennan raising it – but that he wasn’t “aware of the specific nature of these allegations until Oct. 2.”
Murphy said parts of the Wall Street Journal article “shocked the hell out us” and that he feels “horribly,” “crushed” and “sick to my stomach” about what transpired.
“It certainly wasn’t handled appropriately in the sense that she got her proper hearing in the prosecutorial sense. And I don’t think the rules of the road in government are sufficient, particularly as it relates to sexual assault,” he said. “… The voices must be heard. We must stand with the Katies of the world, and that did not happen.”
Murphy said he promised Verniero complete access and independence for his review of hiring and vetting by the transition, which won’t be limited to Alvarez.
“This will be a real investigation, designed to uncover the truth of what happened, wherever it leads,” he said. “We’re not playing politics. We owe the people of New Jersey transparency, and that’s exactly what we’ll provide.”
Mamta Patel, director of the state’s Division of Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action, will review all state policies and procedures regarding handling of allegation of sexual misconduct.
“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,” Murphy said.
Murphy said Grewal’s office will do a comprehensive evaluation of how sexual assault allegations are handled by law enforcement, “to change the balance so that victims are taken seriously and justice may be more easily achieved.”
“Whether that is by asking the Legislature to do something like extend the statute of limitations or new procedures or training by which prosecutors or law enforcement investigate or take action against allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, this will be looked at from every angle,” he said.
Republican lawmakers say the Legislature should investigate. Democrats haven’t committed to that, but their Assembly leaders says “every option (is) on the table.” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, called for the formation of a special legislative committee.
“We need a top-to-bottom examination of the system to identify the flaws and failures that need reform,” Weinberg said. ““I am pleased that the governor has now asked for an investigation, but the Legislature has a responsibility to act and an important independent role to play.”
“There is no doubt that the system failed Ms. Brennan, and that the failures occurred at every level,” Weinberg said.
Murphy indicated he doesn’t think a legislative investigation is necessary at this time, given the Verniero, Patel and Grewal inquiries now underway.
“I think these are very meaningful steps we’re taking right now. So I would hope we don’t get – this is one of these moments when could either grandstand, or they could call balls and strikes and figure out how do we make New Jersey better for victims of sexual assault,” Murphy said.
“I don’t know on the process of legislation,” he said. “But I just want all of us, I plead with members of both parties, to be – let’s stand up for Katie. Let’s stand up for the likes of Katie that have happened or will happen going forward and make New Jersey a better place for those victims.”
Murphy said he and his wife Tammy, who at a rally in January disclosed that she was a victim of sexual assault as a college student, planned to speak with Brennan by phone Monday afternoon, then meet face-to-face after his economic mission to Germany to Israel.
“We will express to Katie personally our profound heartbreak for what she has gone through and is going through,” Murphy said.
“Tammy and I admire Katie’s bravery, and it’s critical that we learn from her experience. For her and all women across New Jersey, we must ensure that the system works,” he said.