Katie Brennan wants to improve how New Jersey handles sexual assault, harassment cases

In December 2018, Katie Brennan, the chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, raises her hand as she is sworn in to testify before the Select Oversight Committee at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

In December 2018, Katie Brennan, the chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, raises her hand as she is sworn in to testify before the Select Oversight Committee at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

Katie Brennan, who accused a former campaign staffer for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy of raping her during the Democrat’s 2017 gubernatorial bid, has recommendations for how to improve the system for victims of sexual assault and harassment.

Brennan, who now works in Murphy’s administration, made the proposals last week in a letter her attorney sent to the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics, which was recently formed by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen.

The letter lays out more than two dozen ideas for how to improve state policies and laws around sexual harassment and make police, judges and prosecutors more accountable to survivors.

“From the moment an incident occurs, the community, the workplace, the criminal and civil justice systems are all intertwined,” Brennan said in an interview. “A failure in one impacts all the others.”

Brennan accused former Murphy campaign staffer Al Alvarez of raping her in her Jersey City apartment after an event during the 2017 gubernatorial race. Although Brennan took her case to the police, two separate prosecutors offices declined to charge Alvarez, who has denied her claim.

The incident became the subject of legislative hearings about the handling of Brennan’s allegations, and an overall audit of the state’s system for dealing with sexual assault claims.

Brennan also sued the Murphy administration and his gubernatorial campaign, partly in an attempt to be released from a confidentiality order that barred her from speaking about her case. One of her recommendations was for the state to eliminate confidentiality forms.

“If you’re not able to speak about what has happened to you, you cannot effectively get justice,” Brennan said. “You cannot stop it from happening to anybody else. You can’t alert people about a perpetrator. And you can’t get the support that you need.”

Murphy has expressed regret for what happened to Brennan and enacted several policy changes in response. He has also said his staff members followed the proper procedures after learning of Brennan’s claims against Alvarez.

Among Brennan’s other recommendations are that political campaigns be required to have written sexual harassment and anti-discrimination policies, training for both paid and unpaid staff and mechanisms for reporting misconduct.

She suggested that New Jersey make changes to its anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy for state workers by requiring all reasonable claims to be investigated, and completing investigations more quickly. Brennan also proposed changes for how the criminal justice system handles claims of sexual assault, such as giving survivors the right to reject a plea deal.

Some of her recommendations related to criminal justice were addressed in a 2018 directive issued by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. The directive requires law enforcement agencies to provide survivors with support services and communicate with victims before reaching a plea deal or declining to press charges.

In a similar vein, Gov. Murphy has announced his intention to crack down on harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace. On Tuesday, he proposed legislation that would clarify what constitutes a “hostile work environment” and mandate that all public and private employers have written policies on harassment and discrimination.

Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, credited the #MeToo movement for spurring the legal and political change that is afoot in New Jersey.

“We are moving beyond the stories — which are really important — into translating that into policies and practices,” Lancaster said. “We’re getting to the part of MeToo that is hopefully going to lead to some actions and reforms.”

In December, NJ Advance Media published an investigation based on the stories of 20 women in state politics who said they had faced misogyny, harassment, or worse from their male colleagues. The article caused Weinberg to create her work group and prompted changes at two of the state’s main networking events.

Brennan, who said she went public with her allegation against Alvarez to highlight the need for change in state government and the criminal justice system, said she is pleased to see movement on issues related to sexual harassment and assault.

“Our systems are made of humans,” Brennan said. “Until we change the culture of the people that are the prosecutors, that are the judges, that are the juries, we will not be able to change those institutions.”

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