Pa. child abuse lawsuits held up due ‘systemic failures’ in Dept. of State, report says

By: - May 26, 2021 5:49 pm

State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, speaks to reporters after the Department of State revealed its report on the statute of limitations advertising snafu.

In a report released Wednesday, the state Inspector General found no evidence of “intentional malfeasance” in an advertising error that delayed a Pennsylvania constitutional amendment to allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers.

Instead the report pointed a finger at an informal and unwritten process for tracking and overseeing constitutional amendments in the Department of State, as well as no formal job training for the legislative liaisons whose job it is to catalog such legislation for higher ups.

The report’s release was followed by a press conference 15 minutes later, in which acting Department of State Secretary Veronica Degraffenreid told reporters that the department would change its process for tracking amendments in the future to prevent another error.

“I want to sincerely apologize to the victims for the additional pain and distress we have caused them,” Degraffenreid said, adding: “Our new processes and corrective actions will be ingrained in the department’s personnel to ensure that such a failure will never happen again.”

The investigation was sparked by an error, first made public in February. Then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar announced that the initial amendment, passed in November 2019, had not been advertised as required under state law. Boockvar then resigned from office.

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If approved by voters, the amendment would have extended the statute of limitations for childhood survivors of sexual assault. This allows them to sue their perpetrators, and those who shielded them, and seek damages in civil court.

Under current state law, survivors lose the ability to file such suits at age 30. Survivors, such as those abused by priests, have lobbied the General Assembly for years to make a change.

When the General Assembly passes an amendment, the Pennsylvania constitution requires the Secretary of State to advertise the amendment for three months before the next general election, in at least two newspapers in every county.

The Department of State was informed of the amendment’s passage in November 2019. But the department’s staff did not acknowledge its passage in any other way until contacted by attorneys in Gov. Tom Wolf’s office in January 2021.

Jennifer Storm, the state’s former victim advocate, told the Capital-Star that she was glad there was no smoking gun to show malicious intent in the report. However, she still expressed confusion at how the amendment escaped attention.

“I read the whole report. I still don’t understand,” Storm said. “To be very honest, it’s still not clear to me how this was just forgotten, and it’s embarrassing as a commonwealth that you have this office that has this degree of responsibility.”

“They had no problem publishing any other constitutional amendment,” she added.

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The report does not place the blame for this mistake on any one individual. But out of 15 Department of State employees interviewed, eight placed the responsibility to inform higher ups of the passage of such an amendment on the office of legislative affairs.

The report found that current legislative staff, including its director, were unclear of the office of legislative affairs responsibilities “concerning its role in monitoring constitutional amendments with no direct impact on DOS operations.”

The office was formerly run by Victor Wills, whose duties would have included tracking legislation impacting the Department. That would include changes to election, professional licensing, campaign finance and lobbying laws.

Wills is not identified by name in the report, but was the Department’s legislative affairs director on the report’s listed completion date, according to state records. 

An email sent by Wills and acquired in a public records request by the Capital-Star also matches an email sent by the unnamed “Legislative Affairs Director” in the Inspector General report.

At times, his job description, which was never formally laid out to him according to the IG report, also involved flagging constitutional amendments.

According to the IG report, Wills tracked the movement and passage of five amendments from 2019 until 2021, including amendments to change how the lieutenant governor is elected, split the state’s appeals courts into districts, and Marsy’s Law — a victim’s rights amendment.

“This is a constitutional amendment proposal that has now been passed by both chambers in consecutive sessions. I have attached the bill here,” Wills wrote in the email, sent to then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and 16 others, upon the passage of Marsy’s Law. “It will therefore need to be advertised properly and a ballot question will need to be written as well.”

According to the report, Wills told investigators he was aware of the statute of limitations amendment because of the news, but assumed that the attorney general’s office was following the legislation “because it was referred to the Judiciary Committee.” 

Two of the amendments Wills did notify his superiors of also originate in the same committee. 

Wills added to investigators that the statute of limitations amendment “[did not] affect what we do, whether it is licensure or elections, and so I [did not] follow it,” according to the report. 

While Wills was still the legislative director when the IG report was finalized on April 28, 2021, he resigned his position effective May 21, according to Degraffenreid.

In an email viewed by the Capital-Star and sent to legislators that day, Wills said he is leaving his job to follow his wife to a new job.

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Degraffenreid would not comment further on why Wills resigned. Wills did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, former secretary Boockvar agreed with the reports finding that the mistake was an unintentional anomaly, and confirmed earlier findings of the Department of State’s executive team.

But while she agreed with the general conclusion, she also cited unspecified “inaccuracies and unsubstantiated misstatements of fact and law throughout the report” in a footnote.

Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, a survivor of childhood abuse who sponsored the bungled amendment, entered the press conference late to ask Degraffenreid again about any additional firings or resignations. She once again declined to answer.

Speaking to reporters, Gregory expressed frustration with the lack of information on personnel moves by the administration.

“There’s just no way that if there were mistakes made in the private sector like this, people lose their jobs,” Gregory said.

Overall, he called the report more of a “deflection” of what really happened.

Fixing the error with another constitutional amendment would take until at least 2023, due to the extended timeline for passing new constitutional amendments.

Storm advocated for the state Senate to take up a statutory change to open the window for post-facto lawsuits immediately. The proposal passed the House in April, but Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, opposes the proposal and doubts its legality.

As for Gregory, after being so close to the finish line, he could only hope that future revelations might push Ward to reconsider her stance.

“I’ve had to hold on to a lot of hope through this entire journey, and I can’t ever let go of hope,” Gregory said. “I can’t ask victims to continue to hope with me.”

Capital-Star staff writer Marley Parish contributed to this report.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.