‘I spoke truth to power’: Ousted Pa. Victim Advocate Storm slams Senate GOP over vote to deny her another term

By: - November 17, 2020 5:04 pm

Jennifer Storm speaks during a House hearing on Marsy’s Law in 2019 (Capital-Star photo).

(*This story was updated on 11/17/20 at 6:10 p.m. to clarify Jennifer Storm’s allegation about Scarnati’s involvement in the ethics investigation.)

Pennsylvania’s crime victim advocate castigated the top Republican in the state Senate Tuesday, saying he publicly defamed her and derailed her career after she staked out positions that put her at odds with his office.

“I spoke truth to power, and as a result I made the greatest enemy you can make in the Senate,” Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm told reporters during a Zoom call, referring to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. “And as a result, I am being vilified.”

Storm made her remarks one day after the Senate shot down her renomination, voting 32-18 Monday to deny her a second term leading the Office of the Victim Advocate. 

Storm started her tenure there in 2013, and has since been a public face for victims in some of the state’s most high-profile court cases and policy debates. 

Gov. Tom Wolf nominated Storm in May to serve another six-year term. 

She faced opposition then from criminal justice reform groups, who said her support for harsh sentencing laws contributed to mass incarceration. 

Her nomination was ultimately doomed, however, by opposition from the Senate’s Republican majority  – the result of a “personal vendetta” Scarnati held because of her advocacy on behalf of victims of sexual abuse and harassment, she said.

Storm confirmed Tuesday that she is under investigation by the state Ethics Commission for allegedly violating state laws that govern conduct by elected and appointed public officials. 

She said the investigation started in March. The complaint that sparked it claimed she used her public office for private gain when she was raising funds for a documentary film, and while advocating for Marsy’s Law, a proposed constitutional amendment creating a crime victims’ bill of rights.

Storm denied wrongdoing and said she expected to be cleared in the investigation.

But she accused Scarnati of weaponizing the state Ethics Act against her when he announced the investigation on the Senate floor Monday. 

*She also revealed her belief that Scarnati was behind the complaint filed with the state Ethics Commission, and that he weaponized the investigation order to obstruct her reconfirmation.

State law offers confidentiality to people who file complaints with the state Ethics Commission. Storm said she believes she knows that person’s identity, but would not reveal it.

Storm said her hunch that Scarnati was involved was based on the fact that the complainant was being represented by lawyer Matt Haverstick – a religious liberties attorney who has worked for Senate Republicans and helped Catholic dioceses fending off civil lawsuits from survivors of clergy abuse.

Haverstick did not return a message left with his office Tuesday. 

The Philadelphia-based attorney was a vocal opponent of reforms to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations laws, which aimed to make it easier for child victims to sue and press charges against sexual abusers. 

Haverstick said the reforms violated the state constitution – an argument Scarnati cited when he blocked the measures from coming up for a vote, drawing intense criticism from Storm and other advocates. 

Scarnati offered a compromise the following year that called for a two-year constitutional amendment process. Storm called it a stall tactic that deferred justice for abuse survivors.  

Storm says she crossed the Senate leader again when she advocated on behalf of a Senate security officer who sued Scarnati in federal court, claiming the Senate tolerated workplace sexual harassment.

The Philadelphia Inquirer later reported that Scarnati signed off on more than $23,000 in payments to cover legal bills for the employee accused of harassment. 

Scarnati called the attacks Storm levied against him Tuesday “egregious.” 

“I am shocked and disappointed at the level of anger and hate expressed by Ms. Storm,” he said in a prepared statement. “Her continued unprofessionalism is troubling.”

Scarnati also defended the Senate’s decision to deny Storm a second term, noting that the lawmakers opposed to her appointment included five Democrats. 

His spokeswoman also denied the allegation that Scarnati was behind the ethics complaint against Storm.

She said Scarnati learned of the ethics investigation from the complainant, who authorized him to make it public. 

The state ethics commission fields upwards of 500 sworn complaints each year, its executive director, Robert Caruso, told the Capital-Star. It only launches a full investigation once it’s concluded that a complaint has merit. 

Those probes can take up to a year to complete. 

And while the identity of a complainant is confidential under state law, the subject of an investigation “does not enjoy the same legal freedoms,” Caruso said.

People who make false claims to the commission are subject to penalties under state law. 

But complainants and witnesses aren’t required to keep quiet if they’ve sparked an investigation or offered testimony. 

The Ethics Commission used to encourage them to keep their involvement private. That changed when a federal court ruled that someone who publicly announces an investigation – as Scarnati did Monday – is protected under First Amendment freedom of speech rights, Caruso said.

Caruso said it’s common for officials under investigation to hire lawyers to represent them. But he added that people filing complaints “rarely, if ever,” have an attorney do it on their behalf.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.