National News

‘My Pleas for Help Went Unanswered’: Accuser on N.J. Governor’s Handling of Sexual Assault Claims

Posted December 4, 2018 7:28 p.m. EST

TRENTON, N.J. — A top official in the administration of Gov. Philip D. Murphy described in wrenching testimony Tuesday the lack of urgency among aides to the governor after she accused a member of Murphy’s campaign of sexual assault.

The emotional narrative marked the first day of legislative hearings into how Murphy’s administration has handled a case that threatens to thwart his ambitious agenda and cast a stain over his progressive image.

The official, Katie Brennan, spoke slowly and sternly as she detailed her allegations against Albert J. Alvarez, whom she accused of sexually assaulting her after a campaign event last year, and described how the administration ignored her repeated pleas and continued to employ Alvarez as a senior campaign worker.

“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 in her opening statement.

“Somehow, it wasn’t a priority to address my sexual assault,” she continued, “until it impacted them.”

It was Brennan’s first public comments since her allegations were revealed in October, rattling the state and jeopardizing Murphy’s ambitious goals for his first year in office, which include legalizing recreational marijuana and raising the minimum wage.

Brennan’s painful testimony and the seeming inaction by some of Murphy’s closest aides could also wound the governor’s reputation as a champion for women and undermine his emergence as a national Democratic leader.

Alvarez, who did not speak at the hearing, has denied the allegation. After the governor’s election, Alvarez went on to hold a top position in Murphy’s administration before resigning in October.

Murphy has said that he was never told about the specific allegations even as Alvarez continued to work as chief of staff in the Schools Development Authority. The governor said that he only found out about the accusations just before an article about the episode was published in The Wall Street Journal. Alvarez resigned after being contacted by a reporter from The Journal about Brennan’s accusation.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Murphy said little about Brennan’s testimony, including how his administration had responded to her accusations. Instead, in a statement, he praised her for the “leadership she showed in telling her story” and cited new state guidelines regarding sexual harassment and assault.

“She is right: No one should have to go through an ordeal to have their voices heard,” he said.

Brennan described Tuesday how she repeatedly brought her account to top members of Murphy’s inner circle.

Brennan said that within days of being assaulted by Alvarez in her Jersey City apartment she met with Justin Braz, a friend who worked in state government and ended up working for Murphy’s campaign, and told him what had happened.

She also went to the Jersey City police to report the assault, underwent a rape examination at a hospital and went to the Hudson County prosecutors office to press charges.

Despite seeing Alvarez continue to work for the Murphy campaign and later on the transition team, she decided to take a job in the Murphy administration because she was determined not to let the assault impact her career.

“As a victim of sex assault, I should not be the one to give up my career goals in favor of the career goals of my rapist,” said Brennan, who is chief of staff to the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.

She recalled every instance that she crossed paths with Alvarez — at meetings, at a campaign rally with Murphy and President Barack Obama, at a debate, at the governor’s inaugural ball.

The Hudson County prosecutor’s office eventually decided not to press charges against Alvarez.

Brennan cited news reports that top members of Murphy’s administration, including Pete Cammarano, who went on to become the governor’s chief of staff, knew that one of their top aides had been accused of sexual assault, even though they did not know who the victim was.

“Just the knowledge that there was an accusation of sexual assault by one transition team member against one of the transition team’s senior staffers should have been enough to trigger action,” Brennan said. “Yet still, nothing.”

In March, Brennan reached out to Matt Platkin, Murphy’s chief counsel, to tell him about the assault. She said he was “horrified” and “disgusted” and said that he would refer the matter to the attorney general.

A month after her meeting with Platkin, Brennan was contacted by Heather Taylor, the chief ethics officer for the state, who said that no action could be taken because, at the time of the episode, neither Brennan nor Alvarez were state employees.

So Brennan said she reached out directly to Murphy.

“I thought that if any administration could make progressive reforms, it would be this one,” she said. “So on the evening of Friday, June 1, I emailed the governor and first lady, Tammy Murphy.”

In her email, she said she wanted to discuss a “sensitive matter,” but did not provide any specifics. But Murphy responded within the hour, writing, “We know you well,” and “Hang in. We’re on it.”

Brennan never heard from the governor again regarding her email. Instead, Jonathan S. Berkon, a lawyer in private practice who had served as campaign counsel, reached out to Brennan.

In her brief conversation with Berkon, Brennan never mentioned her allegations or Alvarez’s name. But the campaign counsel told her that Alvarez would be leaving the administration and state employment.

Yet two months later, in September, Brennan realized that Alvarez was still working for the state. That is when she took her allegations to The Journal. Only then did she see any action from the administration, she said.

“We can believe survivors,” Brennan said. “We can stop ‘he said, she said’ from always becoming ‘he said.’ We can improve the justice system.”

Brennan was the only witness Tuesday. Loretta Weinberg, the state senator who is co-chairwoman of the select committee holding the hearings, said she still had questions about the timeline of events, the apparent communication breakdowns in the governor’s office and the role of the Hudson County prosecutor’s office in the case.

“I would like to know why the case was declined,” Weinberg said, adding that the hearing would resume Dec. 18.

Weinberg’s committee has subpoena power to compel witnesses. She said she would meet with other lawmakers before deciding the next witnesses but would not rule out calling Murphy or members of his administration.

Near the end of the more than five hours of testimony, Michael Critchley, a lawyer serving as counsel to the select committee, asked Brennan who else the committee should call to testify.

“Everybody that I’ve mentioned today,” Brennan replied.