Sex assault accuser says Murphy administration let her down — ‘I hoped for justice’
TRENTON — The woman who accused a former Murphy administration and campaign staffer of sexual assault spoke in public for the first time Tuesday — before a special legislative committee convened to investigate how the administration handled the accusation.
The daylong hearing comes after the Attorney General's Office last week concluded that the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office did nothing unethical in handling the accusations brought forward by Katie Brennan. Prosecutors chose not to press charges because Al Alvarez claimed the conduct was consensual, but that decision is now being reviewed by prosecutors in Middlesex County.
Alvarez resigned from his position as chief of staff for the state Schools Development Authority in October when the Wall Street Journal reported on on Brennan's story. Brennan had been told in June that Alvarez would be jettisoned over the April 2017 incident and was surprised he was still on the payroll months later.
“I should not have to be here today," Brennan told lawmakers. "I should not have been attacked. I reported my attack to the police and the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, and my report went unheard. I reported my attack to the campaign and transition committee and administration, and it went unheard. I asked to report my attack to the governor and first lady, and my request went unheard. I and no survivor should have to tell their story to the newspaper to be heard.
“I had access to people in the highest positions of power in the state of New Jersey, and at each turn my pleas for help went unanswered," Brennan said. "Somehow, it wasn’t a priority to address my sexual assault and working with my rapist until it impacted them.”
Responding to the testimony Tuesday, Gov. Phil Murphy said "no one should have to go through an ordeal to have their voices heard."
“I watched Ms. Brennan’s opening statement today, and I commend the courage, bravery, and leadership she showed in telling her story," Murphy said in a statement released by his office. "We must stand with survivors of sexual assault, and we must start from a place of believing the accuser."
Murphy pointed to two internal investigations he ordered in October to determine how Alvarez was hired and how policies should be updated.
"I then tasked Attorney General Gurbir Grewal with looking at making New Jersey’s criminal justice system the most victim-centered in the country, to help ensure that no one has to go through what Ms. Brennan has gone through. The policies and procedures that he issued last week will make meaningful changes to how sexual assault victims are treated and how prosecutions are handled in our state."
Among the 14 new protocols Grewal introduced: require prosecutors offer victims a meeting to discuss their reasons for not pursuing charges. Brennan said Tuesday she received a phone call but no meeting.
The special committee will meet again Dec. 18, though it's not clear who will be testifying. Brennan suggested that everyone she mentioned at the hearing should be called as a witness, to explain what actions they took or who they spoke with. That could include Murphy, whom she emailed seeking to talk about “a sensitive matter” on June 1.
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, said Tuesday’s testimony will be reviewed before deciding who should be called in. Asked specifically about Murphy, she said. "I don’t think that anything is ruled out at this point.”
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, says at some levels, "there was a curious lack of asking about the details" of what happened.
“We have not reached a conclusion of how far up this actually got," Weinberg said.
Brennan said that before reporting the assault to the Jersey City Police Department, she called her friend Justin Braz, who was working for the campaign and is now deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs. She says Braz later told others in the transition office what had happened to Brennan, without disclosing her identity. He also helped run interference so Brennan wouldn’t have to interact with Alvarez at events such as the gubernatorial debate at William Paterson University.
“I continued to work with the Murphy campaign because I did not want to let the assault stand in the way of me working for the campaign and Gov. Murphy’s administration," Brennan said. "As a victim of sexual assault, I should not be the one to give up my career goals in favor of the career goals of my rapist.”
Brennan said she saw Alvarez repeatedly at campaign events after the assault. She sent a letter to him asking that he not contact her, and she sent a letter during the transition asking that he not decide whether to hire her for a job in the administration.
On Dec. 1, 2017, she found out Hudson County prosecutors wouldn’t bring charges, which surprised her. She had cleared Braz to tell the transition office charges were coming so they could be prepared for the likely publicity.
“There are no words to describe the hollowness and the disappointment I felt. The trauma, the invasive tests, the questioning, the waiting were all for nothing," Brennan said. "They said they didn’t believe a jury would convict so it would be irresponsible to arrest. In other words, they didn’t think that people would believe me.”
“But now transition counsel knew that Mr. Alvarez had sexually assaulted someone. I hoped for action. I hoped for justice in another form," she said. "It never came.”
On March 20, she met with Murphy chief counsel Matt Platkin at a wine and cheese restaurant in Jersey City. Platkin was horrified and said he’d contact the Attorney General's Office. On March 22, at a separate meeting in Princeton, she said she told Murphy’s deputy chief counsel Parimal Garg.
State ethics officer Heather Taylor informed Brennan on April 24 that the state couldn’t take action because she and Alvarez weren’t state employees at time of the assault.
“The administration took this position even though I continued to have to work in Mr. Alvarez’s presence both during the campaign and after, when he was employed first by the transition team and later by the administration. Once again, no action. Once again, my voice went unheard," Brennan said.
“I heard nothing further. And I still sought justice. And I still wanted to stop Al Alvarez from assaulting again. And I still wanted more for the survivors of New Jersey," she said. "I thought that if any administration can make progressive reforms, it would be this one.”
On June 1, she emailed the governor and first lady Tammy Murphy asking for a meeting. The governor emailed back 41 minutes later: "Hang in. We’re on it.”
“I felt a glimmer of hope," she said.
Murphy didn’t ask what the sensitive matter was that she referred to. No meeting was scheduled. She said she heard that weekend from Jonathan Berkon, an attorney with the international firm Perkins Coie and counsel to the Murphy campaign. Berkon advised that Alvarez would be leaving the administration. He wouldn’t provide details about the separation because it’s a personnel matter. That was June. She learned in September that Alvarez hadn’t left, and he remained on the job until October.
“My only power left was my voice. I told my story to the Wall Street Journal," she said. “Why did I have to tell my story to the Wall Street Journal for the administration to acknowledge that it should not have hired Mr. Alvarez?”
In addition to detailing her story, Brennan also called for lawmakers to take detailed actions to prevent sexual assault, such as better training for prosecutors, judges and juries to remove bias, allowing prior and additional accusations to be used at trial and removing a two-year statute of limitations for pursuing a civil case after sexual assaults.
“We won’t be able to change the entire country’s culture overnight, but we can each play a part," Brennan said. "We can believe survivors. We can stop ‘he said, she said’ from always becoming ‘he said.’”
She also suggested using character reports in employment decisions, saying that if people aren't going to be prosecuted on credible allegations of sexual assault, no paper trail will ever be created that would be detected by a more limited background check.
“If I told them that I was raped, then – then they know that. You know, it’s not a trial. It’s a hiring process," Brennan said.
Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, R-Morris, agreed it’s something the Legislature should look at.
“It was no mystery of what happened. Many heard about it but just kept their eyes a little shut. Or a lot shut," DeCroce said.
Patricia Teffenhart, the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that if actions aren’t taken after the hearings, it will be a missed step.
"So this is the real, dark answer: Nothing that Katie Brennan said is surprising. Many of the things that she experienced are the things that everyday survivors experience," Teffenhart said. "That’s the real sad part of my response is that nothing was alarming and everything was surprisingly common.”