N.J. lawmakers vexed by questions in Brennan case; Murphy proposes survivor-centered policies

Katie Brennan, (left), the chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, listens to a question as she testifies before the Select Oversight Committee at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, in Trenton, N.J. Brennan, a top staffer at the state's housing agency came forward as sexual assault victim and has said too little was done about her complaints, which she reported to law enforcement. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

Katie Brennan, (left), the chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, listens to a question as she testifies before the Select Oversight Committee at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, in Trenton, N.J. Brennan, a top staffer at the state's housing agency came forward as sexual assault victim and has said too little was done about her complaints, which she reported to law enforcement. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

Gov. Phil Murphy proposed changes Tuesday in how New Jersey handles complaints of sexual misconduct against employees and job applicants.

The announcement came after another full day of hearings in the state Legislature on why the Murphy administration hired a man whom officials knew had been accused of rape by a colleague.

So far lawmakers have been unable to answer a key question: Who on Murphy’s transition team decided to hire Al Alvarez, whom officials knew had been accused of rape by Katie Brennan, a former volunteer for Murphy’s campaign who was also hired in the new administration.

“I’m just very frustrated, but I have to laugh about it, because this is more and more insane,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, who co-chairs the Legislative Select Oversight Committee.

“All that we’re asking for is just … someone just give us an answer. It’s not that big of a deal. But the more you don’t give us an answer, the bigger of a deal it becomes,” she said.

Alvarez has denied the rape accusation and was never charged by police. He resigned from his job as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority in October, shortly after being contacted by the Wall Street Journal, which was writing a story about Brennan’s claims.

Brennan, now chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, said she tried to warn officials in Murphy’s transition and administration about what Alvarez had done, but she said her pleas for help were ignored.

Striving for coherent policy

Tuesday’s announcement of proposed changes to state rules around sexual misconduct allegations reflects some of the failures lawmakers have highlighted in Brennan’s case.

One proposed change would allow officials considering opening an Equal Employment Opportunity investigation to weigh whether a victim was a state government worker at the time of the complaint, regardless of when the alleged incident took place.

Melissa Liebermann, chief of staff to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, testified that she advised a Murphy official the state could not open an EEO investigation into Brennan’s claims because neither Brennan nor Alvarez were state employees at the time of the alleged rape.

Murphy’s proposed changes also include suggestions for dealing with sexual misconduct situations before investigations are complete; making transition offices subject to the state’s sexual misconduct policies; and broadening the state’s definition of sexual assault.

The revisions to the state administrative code will have to go through the formal rule change process.

“These additional measures clearly dictate the appropriate course of action to be taken by both survivors and the state,” Murphy said in a statement. “By embracing a survivor-centered approach in New Jersey, we are creating an environment where survivors of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault are not only encouraged to come forward, but when doing so, they are met with dignity, respect, and a straightforward process to attain justice.”

Who hired Alvarez?

Lawmakers continue to wonder why, when Brennan did alert Murphy transition and administration officials, the state hired Al Alvarez anyway.

Lynn Haynes, who was the director of personnel on Murphy’s transition team, said she did not make the decision to hire Alvarez.

Haynes testified that she did not know the full scope of Brennan’s allegation against Alvarez during the transition and was not surprised when she heard he had been hired in the administration.

“Al [Alvarez] had longstanding relationships from the campaign. He was friends with the folks on the campaign. He had relationships on [the] transition. And he knew the governor well, so it was just a natural progression to me,” she said.

Yet when it came to the question of who hired Alvarez, Haynes had little to add.

She said Alvarez told her during the transition that he had been selected to become chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, but he did not say by whom.

Haynes said the news was later confirmed to her by transition director Jose Lozano.

Yet who was it that told Lozano, as he testified in January, that Alvarez had been hired for a top job in the new Murphy administration? Al Alvarez.

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