How Pa.’s victim advocate found herself in the crosshairs of the GOP-led Senate

By Angela Couloumbis
Spotlight PA
September 28, 2020

The signs, at first, were subtle.

In the spring of 2019, legislation that she was championing had come to a screeching halt in the Republican-controlled Senate. Advocates for the bill, known as Marsy’s Law, at the time were baffled by the chamber’s inaction on a measure that otherwise had wide and enthusiastic support among rank-and-file GOP legislators.

By that summer, the legislature had quietly eliminated funding for her office — Pennsylvania’s Office of Victim Advocate — which was later rescued by the Wolf administration when it was absorbed into a different state agency.

And though few have taken notice, or spoken publicly about it, Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm’s nomination for another six years at the helm of the state office that advocates for survivors of crime, domestic violence, and physical and sexual abuse has lingered in limbo in the Senate for the past 10 months.

Now, Storm is again in the crosshairs of the Senate, where Republicans who control the chamber just this month suddenly pushed a proposal that, if approved, would effectively make her ineligible to remain on the job. And, though perhaps for different reasons, not every Democrat was opposed to the measure.

Republican leaders say the bill is not personal, but rather an attempt to better position the advocate to fall back on their legal knowledge to provide guidance to victims. But interviews with more than half a dozen legislators, legislative aides, advocates, and others paint a more complex picture.

Storm, they say, has angered Joe Scarnati, the top Republican in the Senate, with her advocacy and pointed outspokenness in high-profile cases involving victims of sexual abuse, including women who came forward during the #MeToo movement to level allegations against onetime legislators and legislative employees.

But her critics extend to the other side of the aisle as well, with one Democratic lawmaker saying he believes her work has favored victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse at the expense of victims of gun violence in cities like Philadelphia.

Others privately believe she has blurred the lines between her public work and her private endeavors, which include writing books, traveling for speaking engagements, and filming a documentary. (Storm notes she was already an author and speaker when she took the position, and said she has taken pains to keep her government job and other professional endeavors separate.)

What is undeniable is that, since being nominated in 2013 by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, she has elevated the profile of what was once a largely unknown office, and the GOP-controlled legislature is in no rush to give her another term.

“It looks like it’s a personal attack,” said Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, who publicly spoke out against the legislation that would prevent Storm from staying in the job. “Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me. But it certainly disgusts me.”

In an interview, Storm would not address whether she believes she is being targeted, saying only: “In my job, I’ve had to shine a light on really bad acts — and in doing that, it sheds light on bad actors.”

She added: “As the victim advocate, it is my job to give survivors a voice, or be their voice when they are not ready to do it on their own. And I will never apologize for that.”

Storm’s success in building awareness for her office stems, in part, from her personal story. She has documented it in a series of memoirs over the past decade, in which she describes being raped as a child, her subsequent descent into substance use and self-harm, and her journey to recovery. She often speaks about how her past has helped her channel her energy into helping people overcome traumatic experiences and advocating for victim-focused policy changes.

Over the past six years, that has placed Storm in the middle of some of the state’s most highly charged and politically fraught cases.

From the child sexual abuse scandals involving Penn State and the Roman Catholic Church to the #MeToo allegations that surfaced in the Capitol starting in late 2017, Storm has been a fixture at press conferences with victims advocating for policy changes. Her message, on behalf of victims, could be raw and unfiltered.

Along the way, she has gained fierce critics.

One of them is Scarnati of Jefferson County, according to interviews with four sources who requested anonymity, fearing that speaking publicly would jeopardize their careers. Scarnati did not respond to requests for an interview for this story. His spokesperson, Kate Flessner, did not answer questions about Scarnati’s opinion of Storm. Instead, she referred questions about the legislative proposal involving Storm to the state senator who sponsored it.

Scarnati’s animus, the sources said, dates to late 2018, when the Capitol swelled with victims who had been abused as children by Catholic priests. The victims wanted a temporary pause in the state’s statute of limitations to permit lawsuits for decades-old abuse. Scarnati led the effort to block the change, which he contended was unconstitutional.

It was a tense time. The state Office of the Attorney General had just released a scathing grand jury report documenting how the Catholic Church had for decades systematically covered up knowledge of complaints against priests who had sexually abused children. Victims held vigils in Senate hallways, reading portions of the grand jury report out loud. They rallied day after day in the Capitol rotunda, Storm at their side, contending Scarnati cared more about the interests of the Catholic Church and the insurance industry than their stories of horrific abuse at the hands of priests.

In the end, Scarnati was successful in blocking a vote on a temporary window for older victims to sue. But he emerged from the fight politically bloodied, with some perceiving him as anti-victim. He vigorously denied that characterization, countering that his concern was about following the law.

In early 2019, Storm spoke out anew after Scarnati’s office came under scrutiny for quietly using taxpayer money to pay the legal bills of the Senate’s onetime security chief who had been accused by two female subordinates of sexual harassment. At the time, Scarnati’s chief of staff and the Senate’s top lawyer, Drew Crompton, said the decision was guided by the chamber’s policy on paying for legal services.

Among the factors Crompton said he and others considered was that the Senate was also named as a defendant in the women’s lawsuits, and that some of the allegations the two made were likely “not accurate.”

Starting in the spring of last year, the first signs that Storm was in the crosshairs of the Senate began to emerge.

One of her signature issues — Marsy’s Law, which would establish a bill of rights for crime victims — was placed on ice for months after being approved by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate. Scarnati is among a select few GOP Senate leaders who have tremendous power over which bills are brought to a floor vote, and how quickly.

Three sources familiar with the delay in voting on Marsy’s Law, which was eventually approved by the Senate, said Scarnati’s dislike of Storm was a factor.

Around the time Marsy’s Law was being brought to a vote in the Senate, Republican legislative leaders were negotiating that fiscal year’s budget with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. When the deal was cut, Storm’s funding line in the budget had been eliminated, although Wolf, according to two sources, reinstated funding for her office under the Department of Corrections.

Also during the budget process, Storm was removed as an ex-officio member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, a creation of the legislature that works to promote fairer and more uniform sentencing guidelines in the state.

Wolf first renominated Storm to another six-year term as the victim advocate in December, but the Senate, which must approve or reject it, has yet to take it up. Wolf officials did not respond to questions about the Senate’s delay in considering her nomination, saying only, “The governor believes protecting victims is of critical importance, and knows Jen Storm will always do so in her position as the commonwealth’s advocate.”

Earlier this month, a Republican senator championed an amendment to a bill that would require that Pennsylvania’s victim advocate be a licensed lawyer, which Storm is not. (Most states do not require victim advocates to be an attorney.)

Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, who pushed for the amendment, said in a statement that he believes making the change will “ensure victims are provided with the highest standard of representation and guidance at a time when they are most vulnerable.”

An array of groups representing victims wrote letters to the Senate opposing the change, noting among other things that the state victim advocate is not even permitted to give legal advice, making a law degree less relevant.

A majority of Senate Democrats voted against the measure earlier this month on the Senate floor.

“We’re changing the rules to disqualify a woman who has been serving as the victim advocate and has been doing an outstanding job in that role,” said Senate Minority Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. “It’s ridiculous. It’s unconscionable.”

But not every Democrat approves of Storm’s performance or disagrees with the Senate’s move to essentially disqualify her from the office.

In an interview, Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, said he believes Storm has failed to advocate for people victimized by gun violence, including many in communities he represents. Street said he has spoken to Storm several times about his concerns and believes that a lawyer might bring a more nuanced view to the job.

“We need an advocate who can speak to the full spectrum of people who have experienced trauma,” Street said.

Storm countered that she has for years met monthly with groups in Philadelphia that advocate for families impacted by gun violence and that because of those meetings, there is more support and funding for those efforts.

Asked whether he thinks Storm’s job performance is better addressed during a vote on her renomination — rather than in a bill that sets new requirements for the job — Street noted Democrats do not have the power to decide what issues come up for a vote.

But, he said, he saw this bill as an opportunity to force a discussion on Storm.

“There are lots of ways to achieve a legislative end.”



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