Lawmakers set up panel to probe handling of assault charge
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawmakers said Tuesday they’re establishing a bipartisan committee to investigate Gov. Phil Murphy administration’s handling of a sexual assault allegation within state government.
Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney said the six-person committee would examine hiring practices, background checks and “systematic problems.” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, also a Democrat, said in a statement that the Assembly will join the committee as well.
It’s the latest development surrounding how the freshman Democratic administration handled claims by a top state housing agency aide who said she was sexually assaulted by a then-campaign staffer, who was up until this week an administration official at the Schools Development Authority.
Katie Brennan told The Wall Street Journal on Sunday that Albert Alvarez sexually assaulted her in April 2017 when they both were working to get Murphy elected.
Alvarez, through his attorney, has denied wrongdoing.
Sweeney is a fellow Democrat but has clashed with Murphy in the past.
“The account of the assault on Ms. Brennan was heart-wrenching and repulsive,” Sweeney said in an emailed statement. “And the repeated failures of authorities to hear her voice and respond to her attempts to achieve justice made me frustrated and angry.”
The governor, who is traveling overseas on an economic mission in Germany and then Israel, is aware of the committee’s creation, spokesman Dan Bryan said. But, he said, Murphy thinks the steps his administration is taking will “significantly help improve” the system. He cited a review of how law enforcement handles such allegations that Murphy ordered the attorney general to pursue.
Brennan said she came forward over too little being done about the alleged assault. She said she reported it to police, confided in her husband and a friend, and also went to the hospital for evaluation.
But no charges were brought in Hudson County, and when she notified members of Murphy’s inner circle, Alvarez continued to be employed until Oct. 2, when he resigned.
Murphy said Monday that even though he thinks his office handled the allegation appropriately, he was hiring former state Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero to investigate and report back.
The attorney general also said Monday the case would be transferred from Hudson to Middlesex County for a second investigation, since Hudson Prosecutor Esther Suarez said she realized she knew Brennan and Alvarez.
The attorney general’s office noted that Suarez did not take part in the initial investigation.
The Senate committee will consist of four Democrats, Loretta Weinberg, Sandra Cunningham, Teresa Ruiz and Fred Madden, and two Republicans, Steve Oroho and Kristin Corrado.
Coughlin said the Assembly committee members would be named in the future.
The creation of the committee increases scrutiny on Murphy’s administration and comes as the governor and Democrat-led Legislature also debate legislation to legalize recreational marijuana and hike the minimum wage to $15 an hour.