Facing opposition on two fronts, the state Senate declines to give Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm another term

Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm speaks at a rally for crime victims in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on April 8, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

The state Senate took the rare move on Monday to block an executive nomination sent to them by Gov. Tom Wolf, as a handful of Philadelphia-area Democrats joined Republican colleagues to oust the state’s appointed advocate for crime victims. 

The Republican-controlled chamber voted 32-18 to shoot down the nomination for Jennifer Storm to remain at the helm of the state Office of the Victim Advocate – the agency that oversees county-level victim services and weighs in on legislation on behalf of the state’s registered crime victims. 

Wolf nominated Storm in May to serve another six-year term. But her candidacy bred an unlikely coalition of opposition in the Senate, which must approve Wolf’s nominees by a two-thirds vote.

Wolf tried to recall the nomination on Monday to prevent the Senate from shooting it down.

The chamber voted on near-party lines to reject his eleventh-hour request, which would have given lawmakers more time to consider Storm’s candidacy.

“The governor is very disappointed that the Senate voted this nomination down without even the benefit of a hearing to consider her qualifications,” Wolf administration spokeswoman Lynsday Kensinger told the Capital-Star in an email.

A former county victim advocate, Storm has led the state’s victim advocacy office since 2013, when she was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. 

She’s since been a visible presence during high-profile criminal proceedings in Pennsylvania, speaking on behalf of victims of the disgraced Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and the actor Bill Cosby.

She’s also an author and public speaker who’s been vocal about surviving sexual assault and living in recovery from substance abuse.

As the Capital-Star reported in October, however, Storm’s advocacy has put her at odds with powerful Republican lawmakers. 

They include the outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who drew criticism in 2018 for opposing reforms that gave children more time to sue and press charges against sexual abusers. 

His refusal to let those bills come up for a vote ignited a year-long battle with Storm’s office, which had pressed lawmakers in public hearings and rallies to pass the reforms in response to the 2018 grand jury report on child sex abuse in Pennsylvania’s catholic dioceses. 

Scaranti, who is retiring at year’s end, made a rare remark from the Senate floor Monday to oppose Storm’s nomination.

He criticized her office for supporting early release for Felix Rosado, a state prison inmate serving a life sentence for murder, and whose clemency bid the Board of Pardons shot down last year. 

Scarnati also charged that Storm was under investigation by the state Ethics Commission.

“I don’t stand here with much glee in doing this,” Scarnati said. “But… to confirm someone who is under a thorough ethics investigation is nothing short of dereliction of duty on our part.”

Robert Caruso, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, could not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation, citing confidentiality concerns.

Storm declined to comment when reached by phone Monday evening. 

Storm’s advocacy also has earned her flak from Democratic lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates. They say her support for harsher sentencing laws has contributed to mass incarceration, and that her office has marginalized poor communities with high concentrations of violent crime.

She’s been at odds with Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, since at least 2018, when she opposed his bill creating parole eligibility for people sentenced to life in prison.

Pennsylvania has one of the largest populations in the country of prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. But Storm said she had to oppose Street’s bill after surveying registered crime victims – people who have sought recognition from the state after being victims of violent crimes.

Street reiterated his charge Monday that Storm had “failed” communities such as the one he serves in Philadelphia, which has been rocked by record-high levels of gun violence this year. 

“Jen Storm is prepared to respond to sexual assaults that happen in the suburbs,” an emotional Street said during a floor debate Monday. “But when people are murdered in the streets of Philadelphia, Jen Storm doesn’t care… I do not think she has served all communities.”

Storm’s nomination has been the subject of an unexpected debate in the Senate this fall. The chamber first moved to block her confirmation by creating a new requirement for the victim advocate to be a licensed attorney – a provision that would render Storm ineligible for her post. 

That measure was amended into a House bill on a narrow vote, but never cleared a third and final vote in the Senate.

The Senate’s vote on Monday may be the first time in five years that the chamber has blocked an executive nomination. The last instance came in 2015, when the Senate shot down Wolf’s nominee to head the Pennsylvania State Police. 

These crime victims have lost loved ones to murder — and to prison. That’s why they want to end life without parole in Pennsylvania