Q&A: Sexual Assault Allegations in NJ Government

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy looked to put scrutiny over his administration's handling of a sexual assault allegation against a state government staffer behind him last week.

But lawmakers are having none of it as they continue their probe into state employee Katie Brennan's accusations of sexual assault against a member of Murphy's campaign staff who went on to work in the administration.

Some key questions and answers in this case: 

WHAT HAPPENED AND WHEN? 

Katie Brennan, who is the chief of staff at the state housing finance agency, has told The Wall Street Journal that she was sexually assaulted in April 2017 by Albert Alvarez while they both were working to get Murphy elected. 

The Associated Press does not usually identify people who say they were sexually assaulted unless they give permission or come forward publicly, as Brennan has. 

Brennan said the assault happened at her apartment and she went to the hospital and police the next morning. Alvarez has denied the allegation. The Hudson County prosecutor's office declined to bring charges in December 2017. 

After Murphy was inaugurated in January 2018, Brennan went to work for the housing agency, and Alvarez was hired as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority. 

From December 2017 through October 2018, when the newspaper article came out, Brennan spoke to a number of Murphy's staff, including his deputy chief of staff, chief counsel, deputy chief counsel and campaign counsel about the allegation. In March and again in June, Murphy's staffers said they met with Alvarez and told him to he should leave state government. 

Brennan came forward after she learned Alvarez was still in government. He resigned as the news account of the allegation was about to come out.

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WHAT'S HAPPENED SINCE WORD OF THE ALLEGATION BROKE? 

Murphy ordered an administrative review of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act policies that govern work-related allegations. He commissioned a taxpayer-financed investigative report, and the Democrat-led Legislature empaneled a committee to investigate Murphy's handling of the matter.

The state attorney general also ordered the Middlesex County prosecutor to review the criminal file since the Hudson County prosecutor announced she knew both Brennan and Alvarez, though she said that didn't affect the decision not to prosecute. 

The Middlesex prosecutor has since declined to bring charges, citing a lack of "credible evidence." 

Brennan has also sued the state and Alvarez. She says she wants an end to rules that require victims of alleged abused to maintain confidentiality during investigations, saying such practice protects the accused, not the accuser. State officials have declined to comment on the suit.

The report Murphy commissioned came out last week: It concluded that Murphy's transition team moved forward too quickly with Alvarez's hiring despite the allegation against him. It didn't single anyone out for having committed wrongdoing. 

Lawmakers have not finished their investigation, but they criticized the Murphy report as failing to answer key questions.

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WHAT DON'T WE KNOW YET?

After seven legislative hearings and the report commissioned by the governor, it's still unclear who hired Alvarez. Lawmakers say that matters because Alvarez was offered a position in state government even though Murphy's transition team was aware of the allegations.

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DID THE GOVERNOR KNOW ABOUT THE ALLEGATIONS?

Murphy says he didn't find out about allegations until The Wall Street Journal began asking questions in October. Around that time, Alvarez resigned. Neither the report nor testimony during the legislative hearing contradicted the governor's account.

This week, Murphy said he wouldn't have hired Alvarez had he known about the allegation. He also said he would have fired Alvarez when he found out, if Alvarez hadn't already resigned.

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WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Brennan's lawsuit continues.

Murphy has announced policy changes, including extending state's equal employment policies to cover transition staff and those applying for jobs in the administration. He also says he backs recommendations contained in the investigative report, including requiring major party candidates for governor to begin transition processes earlier.

"I can't correct history," he said last week. "I've got to pick up the pieces and move forward. The buck stops with me."

Lawmakers have not concluded their investigation yet. But Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said the committee running the probe is aiming to put in place reforms to prevent what happened in this case from happening again.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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