Top Murphy staffer says he told transition team of rape claims in N.J. personnel probe

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)

A senior staffer of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy testified at the state House Tuesday that in November 2017 he told officials that transition team member Al Alvarez had been accused of rape. That testimony comes as Murphy’s administration is being accused of ignoring those allegations and hiring Alvarez for a state job.

Justin Braz, now deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs in Murphy’s office, said he was unaware what transition counsel Raj Parikh and incoming chief of staff Pete Cammarano did with that information about Alvarez.

“I would assume that they would follow whatever process they had in place. I didn’t know what to expect,” Braz said.

The testimony came in public hearings that resumed this week as part of a state legislative investigation into the hiring practices and responses of Murphy and his transition and administration officials.

Katie Brennan, who accused Alvarez of rape and testified before the legislature earlier this month, said she tried to tell top transition and administration officials about her sexual assault but was largely ignored.

Alvarez continued working on the transition team and later took a job with the administration in the Schools Development Authority. He quit in October after the Wall Street Journal contacted him about the sexual assault charges. Alvarez has denied the sexual assault, and he was never charged.

Braz told lawmakers Tuesday that he was unaware of any formal reporting process to take in and relay the allegation aside from telling his boss, Cammarano.

Lawmakers asked Braz why he didn’t follow up on his report to his superiors or raise further alarm bells about Alvarez, who continued working on the transition and later in the administration.

“You knew this man was allegedly accused of sexual harassment,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden. “And you did not feel it was within your power to say it to somebody like Pete [Cammarano] every single day?

The hearing brought into focus questions about the state’s policies and procedures for reporting sexual harassment and assault — and whether they were ignored in this case.

Murphy, who has said he regrets what happened to Brennan, promised that his administration would cooperate with the legislative inquiry.

In April of 2017, Brennan told Braz, a friend who was then chief of staff for Assemblyman Gary Schaer, that Alvarez had raped her.

Braz said Brennan told him she wanted to “handle it in her own way” and didn’t ask him to relay her accusations to anyone.

After Murphy’s victory in the November election, Braz joined the transition team alongside Alvarez.

In November, Brennan told Braz that the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, where had reported the rape, would be reaching a decision on Alvarez and that she suspected he could be arrested any day.

Brennan told Braz to let someone on the transition know about the imminent arrest without using her name.

At that point, Braz said, he told transition counsel Parikh and incoming chief of staff Cammarano that Alvarez had been accused of sexual assault by someone involved in the transition, but he did not mention Brennan’s name.

Only later did Brennan find out that the prosecutor’s office declined to press charges, and she told Braz.

Brennan, now chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, testified in early December that her pleas for help to transition and administration officials were ignored.

“Somehow it wasn’t a priority to address my sexual assault and working with my rapist until it impacted them,” Brennan said.

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