Rape allegation creates new crisis in New Jersey

New Jersey is transfixed on the future of its state government after testimony this week from an official in Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) administration who alleges a senior staffer on the governor’s campaign raped her.

The official, Katie Brennan, is now chief of staff of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. She says Albert J. Alvarez, the former chief of staff of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, raped her while both were working on Murphy’s campaign.

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Alvarez has denied the charges and the Hudson County prosecutor’s office declined to bring charges against him. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in a letter to lawmakers said there was no evidence that the prosecutor, Esther Suarez, had acted improperly in deciding against bringing charges.

But the controversy surrounding how the state and Murphy’s campaign handled the allegations appears set to grow.

Brennan in a hearing in Trenton last week said Murphy's campaign and administration officials ignored her claims, and her lawyer has warned Grewal that his client may sue the state for discrimination.

“We believe Ms. Brennan has claims that arise, at a minimum, under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination,” Kathryn McClure, Brennan’s attorney, wrote in her letter to Grewal.

In her testimony last week, Brennan said she informed Murphy’s team several times of the allegations, but that her entreaties went unanswered.

“I had access to people in the highest positions of power in the state of New Jersey,” Brennan said. “At each turn, my pleas for help went unanswered. Somehow, it wasn't a priority to address my sexual assault ... until it impacted them.”

The Democratic majority leader of the state Senate, who is the co-chair of the committee investigating the incident, said Murphy’s office did not appropriately handle Brennan’s case.

“From what I know thus far I would characterize it as people in the administration failed her along the way,” state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D) told The Hill.

“This is not a woman who didn’t follow the appropriate procedures for somebody who is a victim,” she said of Brennan.

“She called friends that night, she went to the local police department and filed a report. She went to the hospital and had a rape kit, which triggered the country prosecutor getting involved. She did everything that any victim of rape should have done,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg said the state government needs to do more work, and hear from more people, to get to the bottom of the story. Noting that Murphy has agreed to cooperate with the investigative work 100 percent, she said there are not plans at this time to compel Murphy to testify.

Murphy has said he was unaware of the allegations until Alvarez resigned. He has also said it was wrong for Alvarez to have been hired for a position in state government.

“I wish we hadn't made the hire in transition, period,” Murphy said in an October press conference. “I’m sick to my stomach once I heard what happened.”

Murphy has ordered an investigation into how his team responded to Brennan’s claims and why Alvarez was hired after the election. He also tasked state Grewal with transforming New Jersey’s criminal justice system into one that is more “victim-centric.”

“I watched Ms. Brennan’s opening statement today, and I commend the courage, bravery, and leadership she showed in telling her story. She is right: no one should have to go through an ordeal to have their voices heard. We must stand with survivors of sexual assault, and we must start from a place of believing the accuser,” he added in a statement after Brennan’s testimony.

“Specifically, these policies will expand the role of confidential sexual assault advocates for victims, require data reporting and evaluation on sexual assault prosecutions, mandate that law enforcement report sexual assault incidents to county prosecutors within 24 hours, and, if charges are not pursued, require a supervisor’s signoff and provide victims with an opportunity to meet with prosecutors to discuss the decision,” Murphy said.

While the governor has only been in office less than a year, he has already made a national name for himself. He was named vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association last Saturday and will become chairman in 2020, putting him in a prominent role during a high-profile presidential election cycle.

How he handled the unfolding controversy will be a test.

“We’re learning a lot right now and there are a lot of questions and every administration gets into some sort of trouble with something that happens down the chain of command, and the test is will be how Murphy handles that, which remains to be seen,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told The Hill.