Top official within NJ governor’s administration says rape allegations went ‘unheard’

TRENTON, N.J. — A top staff member with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy's administration testified before a select legislative oversight committee today that a former top aide raped her during the campaign and that her reports went unheard by the Governor's transition team and administration for months after.

Katie Brennan delivered a detailed a timeline of events, from her initial alleged assault on April 7, 2017 to her alleged attacker's resignation on October 2, 2018, which she says only occurred after a reporter contacted him.

Brennan told the Wall Street Journal that Alvarez offered to drive her home from a campaign staff gathering in Jersey City and then asked if he could come up to use her bathroom and have a drink of water before continuing to his own home. Once inside, she told the paper, he forced himself on top of her.

She called her husband and a friend, who helped her to file a police report. She also went to Jersey City Medical Center to log a rape kit and cooperated with the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office to build a case.

She also confided in Justin Braz, a friend and the current Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs within the Murphy administration.

On April 17, 2017, Brennan FedExed a letter to her alleged attacker, addressed to him at Murphy campaign headquarters in Newark.

"I wrote a letter to Mr. Alvarez to confront him and tell him that what he did to me on April 8 was a sexual assault," said Brennan. "I have provided a copy of my letter to this Committee, so you can see that I asked Mr. Alvarez to refrain from contacting me ever again."

At the time, Alvarez was the Murphy campaign's outreach director for Muslim and Latino communities.

Brennan was also involved with the Murphy campaign.

Both Alvarez and Brennan were later asked to join the Governor's transition team. Alvarez was hired as deputy director of personnel. While Brennan was asked to work as a policy advisor with an economy, jobs and anti-poverty working group.

All the while, the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office continued to investigate. When Brennan learned that a decision about charges was imminent, she tried to alert the Murphy administration as she knew the event could generate news coverage.

On December 1, 2017, she asked Mr. Braz to tell Murphy's transition counsel, while she as the victim would remain anonymous.

Later that same day, the HCPO told Brennan that no charges would be filed.

"There are no words to describe the hollowness and disappointment I felt," said Brennan. "The trauma, the invasive tests, the questioning, the waiting, were all for nothing."

Throughout the investigation, Brennan says she had to see Mr. Alvarez in passing on numerous occasions. At a gubernatorial debate, at transition committee meetings and at the gubernatorial ball.

"...just the knowledge that there was an allegation of sexual assault by one Transition Team member against one of the Transition Team’s senior staffers, should have been enough to trigger action," said Brennan. "Yet still, I saw no action."

After Murphy's inauguration, Brennan was hired as the Chief of Staff to the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. The Murphy administration appointed Alvarez Chief-of-Staff for the New Jersey Schools Development Authority.

"I kept working to be heard," said Brennan. " I wanted to stop Al Alvarez from ever attacking another woman again. I wanted survivors to receive justice."

On March 20, 2018, Brennan decided to break her anonymity. She met with Matt Platkin, Governor Murphy's Chief Counsel, in Jersey City. She told him about the allegations.

Two days later, on March 22, she met with Murphy's Deputy Chief Counsel, Parimal Garg.

And yet, it would be more than seven months before Alvarez left state government, on his own accord.

On April 24, Brennan says she was contacted by Heather Taylor, Chief Ethics Officer for the State.

"[Taylor] told me that the State could not take any action because Mr. Alvarez and I were not State employees at the time of the sexual assault," testified Brennan. "The Administration took this position even though I continued to have to work in Mr. Alvarez’s presence, both during the Campaign and after..."

"Once again, my voice went unheard," she said.

Finally, Brennan decided it was time to approach the Governor and First Lady directly. She acquired both of their personal e-mail addresses from a colleague and friend.

"I asked to have a meeting with one or both of them about a “Sensitive Matter” that occurred during the Campaign. I did not indicate that my sensitive matter involved Mr. Alvarez," she said.

Governor Murphy responded to her within an hour, she said.

“We know you well....Hang in.We are on it.”, she quoted Murphy's e-mail.

No meeting was ever scheduled.

Instead, Brennan said she heard from Jonathan Berkon, an attorney from Perkins Coie, who served as counsel to the campaign.

Berkon told her that Alvarez would be leaving the administration, but couldn't say why, Brennan testified.

That was in June 2018. Alvarez didn't leave for several months more.

In September of 2018, when Brennan learned that Alvarez was still employed by the Governor's administration, she decided to tell her story to the Wall Street Journal, and Alvarez resigned.

"I should not have to be here today," testified Brennan. "I reported my attack to Campaign, Transition Committee, and Administration it went unheard. I asked to report my attack to the Governor and First Lady and my request went unheard. I, and no survivor, should have to tell my story to the newspaper to be heard."

"I had access to people in the highest positions of power in the State of New Jersey. At each turn, my pleas for help went unanswered," said Brennan.

The governor said he watched Brennan’s testimony today.

"I commend the courage, bravery, and leadership she showed in telling her story," Murphy stated. "She is right: no one should have to go through an ordeal to have their voices heard. We must stand with survivors of sexual assault, and we must start from a place of believing the accuser."

The governor ordered internal investigations into this in October.

"I then tasked Attorney General Gurbir Grewal with looking at making New Jersey’s criminal justice system the most victim-centered in the country, to help ensure that no one has to go through what Ms. Brennan has gone through."

Last week, the state attorney general made changes to how rapes are reported and investigated.

“Specifically, these policies will expand the role of confidential sexual assault advocates for victims, require data reporting and evaluation on sexual assault prosecutions, mandate that law enforcement report sexual assault incidents to county prosecutors within 24 hours, and, if charges are not pursued, require a supervisor’s signoff and provide victims with an opportunity to meet with prosecutors to discuss the decision," detailed the Governor.

Brennan’s case has been re-assigned to the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, in order for investigators to give it another look.

Alvarez has denied the allegations. He’s been invited to testify before legislators in the coming months.