Panel: Governor's staff botched sex assault claim response

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Phil Murphy's administration botched its handling of a sexual assault claim made by one state worker against another, a state legislative panel found in a report that it published on Wednesday.

The Legislative Select Oversight Committee released the 123-page document after nine public hearings and hours of testimony, along with a number of recommendations for changes to law and policy.

The investigation stems from Katie Brennan's complaint that emerged in an October newspaper account. Brennan, chief of staff of the state's housing authority, alleged Albert Alvarez sexually assaulted her while they were both working to get Murphy, a Democrat, elected in 2017.

Alvarez, who left as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority last year, has denied the allegations. Law enforcement declined to bring charges.

The committee says it found Murphy's administration appeared more concerned with "avoiding negative publicity" than following procedures and should have investigated Brennan's allegations more thoroughly.

The state Office of the Attorney General, which was informed of the allegation but declined to pursue it, should have investigated instead of summarily dismissing the claim on jurisdictional grounds, according to the report. Similarly, Murphy's transition team failed to seriously investigate the claim, it said.

"It is not the system that failed Katie Brennan," Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said in hearing Wednesday on the vote to release the report. "It is the people that made up the system that failed."

A message was left Wednesday seeking comment from Murphy's office.

Among the details that came out during the committee's investigation were that Brennan came forward internally in December 2017 and said Alvarez sexually assaulted her the previous April at a social event for a departing co-worker. But Alvarez was nonetheless hired in January 2018.

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In March and again in June 2018, Murphy's chief of staff at the time, Pete Cammarano, and counsel Matt Platkin told Alvarez that he should leave state government, but he remained in his job, even getting a raise, until October, when the Wall Street Journal report came out.

"The errors outlined in the preceding sections are, for the most part, attributable not to the inadequacy of existing policies, but rather, failures to adhere to policies; asserted misunderstandings of policies that appear clear on their face; an apparent lack of urgency in addressing Ms. Brennan's concerns; and a lack of common sense," the report said.

The report also makes several recommendations. It calls for applying the state's equal employment opportunity act requirements to gubernatorial transitions. Transition staff should hire human resources professionals, the report says.

In January, Brennan sued the state and Alvarez, seeking to scrap the state's policy requiring victim confidentiality in cases like hers. Alvarez in March filed a suit of his own, asking for and winning an order from a judge seeking prosecutors' documents.

The Associated Press generally doesn't identify victims of sexual assault, but Brennan came forward publicly in the Wall Street Journal report and afterward in public hearings before the committee.

In February, Murphy announced changes in how the state handles sexual misconduct allegations, applying them to people who work for the governor in the transition period, as well as new job applicants.

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