TRENTON — A working group that has been studying harassment, sexual assault and misogyny in New Jersey politics recommends creating an independent investigative unit under the state Election Law Enforcement Commission to probe allegations of sexual misconduct in politics.

The 76-page report from the 15-member group also suggests the adoption of tough anti-harassment policies by campaigns and political organizations and mandatory anti-harassment training for elected officials, candidates and their staffs.

“You’ve identified with the help of this task force a real pervasive evil, if you will, and we’re going to work on this ongoing with this group of experts that I’ve come to know,” said Laurel Brennan, secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, “and we’re going to keep working on it until we see some real gender equality.”

“I just feel that we’re leaving behind a better landscape for young women who just want to do their jobs,” said Jeannine LaRue, senior vice president for the Kaufman Zita Group lobbying firm.

Julie Roginsky, a Democratic political strategist and co-founder of Lift Our Voices, said orientation and training seminars aren’t usually effective and aren’t enough.

“This is not rocket science. It’s a question of having a culture that doesn’t excuse it at the company and that if it does happen, those people are penalized, not the women speaking up,” Roginsky said.

Legislation creating the new investigative section of ELEC is still being developed. The report says it would have “the authority to investigate allegations of harassment, sexual assault and discrimination in political campaigns, party organizations and at the intersection of lobbying and government whose financial practices they already regulate.”

“We don’t want people in campaigns to feel they have to go to the campaign to lodge a complaint. They need an outside person,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, who organized the working group.

“The difficulty for all us was just trying to think of an impartial, non-beholden group or organization that was going to be able to take this task on,” Roginsky said. “Any commission that you put together is still comprised of political people and still speaks to people in politics. ELEC seems to be the most apolitical of any entity you could put together.”

Weinberg said the new responsibilities would have to come with additional, unspecified funding for ELEC.

“I don’t think we felt that we could create a new unit in government, a separate unit, particularly in these times,” Weinberg said. “And ELEC does have experience of regulating campaigns and of dealing with complaints and investigations and so on, albeit in a different area.”

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The report also recommended that the Assembly pass an eight-bill package passed unanimously by the Senate last month that would implement a series of criminal justice reforms designed to protect the rights of survivors of sexual violence. Weinberg expects the Assembly will take them up in February.

Weinberg said she doesn’t expect those bills or the new proposals to have trouble getting enacted.

“Because of groups like this and because of the media, you will be debating this at your peril,” Weinberg said. “I think we’ve convinced people, so no I don’t anticipate difficulty.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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