Weinberg’s group recommends creation of independent investigative unit to probe sexual misconduct in politics

In 76-page report, it pushes for tough antiharassment policies by campaigns/political organizations, mandatory training for elected officials, candidates and their staffs, and more

Approximately a year after the political world in Trenton was rocked by an NJ Advance Media/Star-Ledger report detailing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment that women in politics face, the ad hoc Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics created by state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg issued a 76-page report filled with recommendations and legislative solutions to the issue.

The asks are thorough:

  • Create an independent investigative unit under the Election Law Enforcement Commission to probe allegations of sexual misconduct in politics;
  • Adopt tough antiharassment policies by campaigns and political organizations and institute mandatory anti-harassment training for elected officials, candidates and their staffs;
  • Prohibit nondisclosure agreements and all contracts designed to keep allegations of sexual misconduct secret;
  • Enact an eight-bill legislative package of criminal justice reforms to protect the rights of survivors of sexual violence that was passed unanimously by the state Senate last month;
  • Work to change the misogynistic culture many feel surrounds the political world in Trenton.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of the recommendations is the creation of the independent investigative unit under the jurisdiction of ELEC — a unit that would be charged with investigating complaints against political campaigns, party organizations and at the intersection of lobbying and government.

Simply put, it would give someone who feels they were harassed an independent agency to go to. That agency could make findings of abusive acts public, sanction those involved — or even refer them to law enforcement.

But, above all else, the report reiterated what could be considered the mission of the workgroup:

  • These issues are not going to be forgotten;
  • The people fighting for them no longer will remain silent.

“This is not a subject that we can ever say, ‘Our work is done,’” Weinberg (D-Teaneck) said Thursday. “This group is going to stay together and is going to continue to monitor how these bills get into law and how they get implemented.”

The members of the workgroup

  • Loretta Weinberg, state Senate majority leader;
  • Sheila Oliver, lieutenant governor;
  • Alison Accettola, Senate majority general counsel;
  • Laurel Brennan, secretary-treasurer, New Jersey State AFL-CIO;
  • Elizabeth Coulter, director of public health, Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey;
  • Sonia Delgado, partner, Princeton Public Affairs Group;
  • Rosa Farias, deputy executive director, Casino Reinvestment Development Authority;
  • Jeannine LaRue, senior vice president, Kaufman Zita Group;
  • Sabeen Masih, vice president of public affairs, Capital Impact Group;
  • Debbie Parks, international vice president, AFSCME;
  • Crystal Pruitt, Franklin Township council;
  • Lisa Randall, commissioner, Bergen County Improvement Authority;
  • Julie Roginsky, co-founder, Lift Our Voices;
  • Christine Shipley, executive director, New Jersey Senate Minority Office;
  • Patricia Teffenhart, executive director, New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Weinberg, on a webinar with reporters that included nearly all of the working group’s members, said Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) have not seen the final report.

But Weinberg and others said the state’s top officials should be familiar with the tone of the findings because of various meetings the group has held in the past year discussing the issue while hearing from those impacted.

The recommendations will be included in upcoming legislation. The group said it is confident they will pass for two reasons: The bills in question already have passed unanimously by the state Senate and public opinion — as well as moral standing — is on their side.

Weinberg said those wishing to debate the ideas will do so at their own peril.

“I think we’ve convinced people,” she said. “So, no, I don’t anticipate difficulty.”

The 15 members of the workgroup are detailed at the bottom of this story.

Here’s a deeper look at the recommendations (as provided by the group). And a look at the eight-bill legislative package regarding criminal justice reforms designed to protect the rights of survivors of sexual violence.

  1. Create an independent investigative section under the jurisdiction of the Election Law Enforcement Commission with the authority to investigate allegations of harassment, sexual assault and discrimination in political campaigns, party organizations and at the intersection of lobbying and government whose financial practices they already regulate: This would enable those who do not feel comfortable filing complaints with party or campaign officials who are close to their alleged abuser to take their case to an independent investigative authority. Findings of abusive behavior should be made public and be subject to sanctions by ELEC, and criminal acts should be referred to law enforcement.
  2. State, county and municipal political party organizations and political campaigns should adopt and post an Anti-Harassment Policy that bars harassment, bullying and discrimination. For party organizations, the policy should contain meaningful sanctions for serious and/or repeated offenses, up to and including denial of campaign funds, denial of endorsement for elected or party office, and denial of the right to run under the party organization line in primary campaigns: The policy should apply to officials, staffers and volunteers at work, in the field and at work-related events and parties, and should require officials with supervisory authority to report violations to the individual or individuals charged in the policy with receiving and investigating complaints. The policy should bar retaliation, including sidelining, demotion, denial of advancement or unfavorable work assignments, against staffers or employees who turn down advances and/or make complaints. The policy may include an informal complaint resolution process that brings both parties together to attempt to resolve issues of misbehavior, but the complainant should have the option to request an immediate formal investigative review process by ELEC if desired. The policy should include an appeals process if either party is dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigation. The policy should be posted publicly and given to all staffers and volunteers. A sample policy developed in consultation with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault is included as Appendix D.
  3. Require antiharassment training for all elected and party officials, candidates, consultants, staffers and volunteers: Training is a necessary step to change the culture and to create a safer, more equitable environment where harassment, sexual assault, discrimination and a “boys will be boys” attitude are less likely to flourish. Training should emphasize the responsibilities of bystanders to intervene and protect those who are in vulnerable situations. Model training programs developed by the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault and other responsible entities should be implemented, and provisions should be made to provide at least online training and consultation with supervisors outlining rights and responsibilities for new hires and volunteers.
  4. Prohibit nondisclosure agreements, mandatory arbitration clauses and other practices designed to keep complaints and their resolution secret: While New Jersey state law now bars nondisclosure agreements, it is important to ensure that new mechanisms designed to silence complainants in the future do not replace NDAs.
  5. Ensure that the New Jersey League of Municipalities and New Jersey Chamber of Commerce follow through with reforms developed for the League of Municipalities Convention and “Walk to Washington” chamber train trip: Both the League and the Chamber met with representatives of the Workgroup and adopted a series of reforms designed to address the toxic climate for women at their premier annual events. Members of the Workgroup monitored the Chamber’s implementation of these reforms in February, including a ban on hard liquor on the train trip, website notices and public announcements to attendees of its anti-harassment policy for participants, and establishment of an 800-number to report complaints. Cancellation of this year’s League convention due to the coronavirus outbreak delayed implementation of similar safeguards. The League needs to take an active role in ensuring antiharassment training for municipal officials.
  6. Enact a bipartisan eight-bill legislative package that passed the state Senate unanimously last month that would implement a series of criminal justice reforms designed to protect the rights of survivors of sexual violence. The legislation was developed in consultation with Katie Brennan, the former campaign staffer whose sexual assault case led to hearings by a Select Legislative Oversight Committee; the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

The eight-bill legislative package

  • S3070/A4884: Establishes a three-year “Sexual Violence Restorative Justice Pilot Program” in North, Central and South Jersey to bring survivors and their abusers together to seek collective healing solutions outside the judicial system.
  • S3071/A4885: Requires law enforcement authorities to provide victims of sexual assault with the police report on their complaint and provide victims with the option to review the police report before it is filed and state whether they agree or disagree with information contained in the report.
  • S3072/A4886: Requires the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy and the county prosecutor’s office to share an information packet with victims of sexual assault explaining their rights and relevant laws, the criminal justice process, available counseling and other services, phone numbers for updates on their case, and contact information for both the prosecutor and the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy.
  • S3073/A4887: Establishes the right of victims of sexual assault to be notified of decision by county prosecutors on whether to file charges prior to notifying the alleged perpetrator and providing victims with the opportunity to consult with prosecutors before plea deal negotiations are concluded.
  • S3074/A4888: Requires the state attorney general to audit sexual assault cases and issue an annual report to the governor and Legislature, including statistics on reports/complaints filed by victims, referrals to county prosecutors, cases declined to be prosecuted, indictments or charges, downgrading of charges, plea agreements and police reports.
  • S3075/A4889: Establishes sexual violence liaison officers with specialized training in the Division of State Police and local police departments to serve as the in-house expert and primary point of contact on sexual violence cases, provide training to other officers and monitor station compliance with the law and other directives.
  • S3076/A4890: Requires training for county prosecutors and assistant prosecutors every three years on how to handle, investigate and respond to reports of sexual assault, including training in restorative justice.
  • S3078/A4892: Codifies into law the State Workplace Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Policy, including training requirements, reporting requirements for supervisors and standards for investigation and disposition of discrimination and harassment complaints.