‘My voice went unheard’: Official testifies N.J. Gov. Murphy campaign, administration ignored sexual assault allegation
"I had access to people in the highest positions of power in the State of New Jersey," Katie Brennan, chief of staff for the state's housing agency, said at a legislative hearing in Trenton. "And at each turn my pleas for help went unanswered."
TRENTON — An official in the Murphy administration described in harrowing terms Tuesday how high-ranking members of Gov. Murphy's campaign and staff, including the governor himself, failed to act when she tried to alert them about a campaign aide who she says raped her.
"I had access to people in the highest positions of power in the State of New Jersey," Katie Brennan, chief of staff for the state's housing agency, testified during a legislative hearing. "And at each turn, my pleas for help went unanswered. Somehow, it wasn't a priority to address my sexual assault and working with my rapist until it impacted them."
Brennan, 31, gave an account of the alleged sexual assault and subsequent efforts to notify Murphy campaign aides and administration officials this fall to the Wall Street Journal. But her public testimony made for an extraordinary moment in Trenton: a #MeToo reckoning unfolding in the Statehouse.
She spoke confidently during nearly five hours of testimony, telling lawmakers that she feared encountering Albert J. Alvarez during the campaign and later in the administration, and that she had at times felt "ostracized" by the governor's office since she went public with her accusation.
Alvarez has denied assaulting Brennan.
The allegations have engulfed Murphy in his first big scandal since he took office in January. Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, formed a special committee to investigate the hiring of Alvarez and more broadly hiring practices in state government.
In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, Murphy said he had watched Brennan's opening statement and commended "the courage, bravery, and leadership she showed in telling her story."
"She is right: no one should have to go through an ordeal to have their voices heard," Murphy said.
He added that he had ordered investigations into Alvarez's hiring and the administration's policies and procedures, and tasked his attorney general with making New Jersey's criminal justice system more victim-centered.
Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal last week issued a statewide directive requiring police departments to report sex-assault cases to county prosecutor offices within 24 hours. If charges aren't pursued, victims must be given the opportunity to meet with prosecutors to discuss the decision.
In addition to hearing testimony from Brennan, the committee is expected to call several senior Murphy administration officials. That could create new headaches for the administration and possibly threaten Murphy's political standing.
He has clashed repeatedly with legislative leaders, who have demonstrated little interest in pursuing the governor's agenda.
The next hearing is set for Dec. 18, though lawmakers have not identified the next witness. The committee intends to write a report and make recommendations regarding screening and hiring practices.
The controversy is all the more striking given that Murphy campaigned as an unabashed progressive and advocate of women's rights.
"I thought if any administration could make progressive reforms, it would be this one," Brennan testified Tuesday, explaining why she reached out to the governor directly in June 2018.
Brennan, who was a volunteer for the Murphy campaign, told the Journal that she was assaulted in April 2017 in her apartment by Alvarez, who was the campaign's director of Muslim and Latino outreach.
The following is Brennan's account of the incident, as reported by the newspaper: Alvarez gave her a ride to her apartment in Jersey City following a bar outing among campaign workers. Alvarez said he wanted to use the bathroom and get a drink of water, then attacked her. Alvarez forced himself on top of her, shoved his hand down her pants and stuck his fingers in her vagina. She managed to get away and lock herself in the bathroom. He left.
Alvarez's attorney didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Brennan also said Alvarez offered a $15,000 settlement if she agreed to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
Brennan told lawmakers that she contacted the police the day after the alleged assault, and that the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office began an investigation.
In December, after Murphy had been elected, Brennan said she allowed a friend — Justin Braz, now Murphy's deputy chief of staff — to inform the governor's transition team that Alvarez might be arrested. But prosecutors declined to pursue the case. (After the Journal article was published, the Attorney General's Office referred the case to the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, as Hudson prosecutors said their office had a conflict of interest.)
Alvarez was named chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, which manages the construction of school facilities. He has since left.
Brennan, who in February became chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, testified that she told Murphy's chief counsel, Matt Platkin, about the alleged assault in March. "He was disgusted," she said, recalling their conversation at a Jersey City restaurant. "He was horrified."
Platkin recused himself from the matter, and the governor's chief ethics officer referred the allegations to the Attorney General's Office, according to the Journal and a Murphy administration official.
The following month, the ethics officer informed Brennan that the administration couldn't fire Alvarez because neither he nor Brennan was a state employee at the time of the alleged assault, Brennan testified.
"Once again, no action," Brennan told lawmakers. "Once again, my voice went unheard."
On June 1, Brennan emailed the governor and his wife, Tammy, to request a meeting. She cited a "sensitive matter" without disclosing the assault.
The governor wrote back within the hour, telling Brennan to "hang in. We are on it." Murphy has said he wasn't made aware of the allegations until October, when the Journal contacted his office.
The day after her email exchange with the governor, Brennan said, she was contacted by Jonathan Berkon, an attorney who had served as a lawyer on the campaign. About a week later, Berkon told Brennan that Alvarez would be leaving the administration, but the lawyer would not say why, calling it a human resources matter, according to Tuesday's testimony.
Brennan said she did not mention Alvarez when Berkon called her, suggesting that the lawyer knew about him beforehand.
No meeting was scheduled with the governor or first lady.
By September, Brennan learned that Alvarez was still employed by the state. "My only power left was my voice," Brennan said. "I told my story to the Wall Street Journal."
The governor and his wife told the newspaper that they were confident the administration had handled the allegation "appropriately," but that it was clear the transition team made a mistake in hiring Alvarez, who resigned in October when the Journal contacted him.
At an October news conference, Murphy announced he had ordered an independent investigation and said he felt "awful" for Brennan.
"Nobody deserves this," Murphy said. "She's been screaming out for help, and she didn't get it. And whether it's reviewing the laws, the policies, who did what when, criminal justice reform, we're just not good enough."
Brennan said she didn't understand why it took so long to get that acknowledgement. "Why did I have to tell my story … for the administration to acknowledge it should not have hired Mr. Alvarez?" she asked.