Sexual Assault Allegations Should Never Be Political

Phil Murphy.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

“You weren’t aware that they (Brendan Gill and Albert J. Alvarez) were college roommates as well?” asked Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen).

When Schepisi, a member of the Legislative Select Oversight Committee looking into the sexual harassment charges made by Katie Brennan asked a witness this question, it set off a firestorm of controversy and now threatens the credibility of the Committee itself.

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In a forceful denial, Brendan Gill responded to Schepisi by calling her a liar. “Holly is a straight up liar, clearly fed information by enemies of the Governor,” Gill tweeted. While Gill has said he believes Alvarez attended Seton Hall University at the same time he did, they did not know one another. Gill posted on Twitter: “my roommate was my 11 year old brother who I shared a bunk bed with while I was in college.”

Perhaps more than anything else that has been said during these hearings so far, Schepisi’s factually inaccurate remarks have given critics of the Committee tangible evidence that it’s work might be more about politics than about social justice, women’s rights or public hiring practices. This is yet another insult and offense to Katie Brennan. So far, no legislator has condemned Schepisi for her recklessness.

The Thwarted Good Intentions of Many Legislators

Some legislators have used the hearing to raise the consciousness of sexual harassment in the workplace. Some seem truly interested in the state’s hiring practices and began the hearing with a hope to improve those practices so that others would not suffer the indignities that Katie Brennan endured. 

Even Governor Phil Murphy deserves praise for his cooperation with the state legislature and his own efforts to improve the state’s employment practices. The cooperation of the two branches of government on this issue is unprecedented and is an example of statesmanship on behalf of the governor.

Investigation into Hiring Practices

The 15-member Legislative Select Oversight Committee is not only investigating how the Murphy administration responded to Katie Brennan’s allegations against Alvarez, but also how it screened all potential employees. Brennan, who volunteered for Murphy’s campaign, has alleged that Alvarez forced himself on her following a campaign event in April 2017. She reported the incident to law enforcement and members of Murphy’s team. Alvarez has denied the allegations, and prosecutors did not file charges.

The goal of the legislative investigation is to determine if changes are necessary to make sure that what happened to Brennan doesn’t happen to someone else.

“It is the mission of our committee to examine all aspects of the screening of prospective employees in state government and continued employment in the public sector of persons with questionable backgrounds, or pending allegations, including allegations or claims of sexual offenses,” committee co-chair Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, said in a statement prior to the hearings.

“After public hearings where we will take testimony, our joint committee will make recommendations to create improvements in screening and hiring practices. We intend to conduct our hearings professionally, fairly and as promptly as possible and deliver a report in an expeditious fashion,” the statement continued. 

Twitter Storm Based on Unsubstantiated Rumor

The line of questioning created a social media storm regarding what motivated Schepisi to ask about the relationship between Gill, Gov. Murphy’s former campaign manager, and Alvarez. Schepisi told NJ Advance Media she heard a rumor from a third party that Gill and Alvarez were roommates. Schepisi later said she had a casual conversation with “someone in the governor’s office” who confirmed they had also heard the two were roommates.

Schepisi later tried to walk back her comments. She posted on Twitter:

“Never said someone in Governor’s office asked me to bring it up. It was discussed casually in a conversation. It is pertinent if a prior relationship/friendship contributed to hiring someone notwithstanding allegations raised. If they weren’t friends than nothing to follow”

Whether she wanted to quash the rumor or infer a connection between Alvarez and the Murphy administration, Schepisi’s unsupported comment that Alvarez and Brenden Gill were roommates was reckless. Rumors and innuendos are the subject of tabloids and should have no place in legislative hearings. 

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Scarinci Hollenbeck—read his full bio here.

Sexual Assault Allegations Should Never Be Political