This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — After a more than year-long investigation, state ethics investigators have found that Pennsylvania’s former chief advocate for crime victims did not trade on her high-profile public position to benefit her personal business ventures.
Jennifer Storm, the state’s onetime victim advocate, did agree to two technical violations of the state Ethics Act, closing out an inquiry she believes was instigated by political enemies as payback for her outspoken advocacy in prominent cases.
Under that agreement, Storm must amend her annual statements of financial interest and pay a $3,000 fine for failing to disclose airfare, lodging, or income associated with two conferences she attended in 2017 and 2018, as well as rental income, according to a copy of the State Ethics Commission’s report, which has not yet been publicly released.
Her lawyer, Jarad W. Handelman, noted that the agency did not substantiate the original allegations that Storm used her public position to promote her memoirs and a documentary film based on them about her past struggle with addiction and path to recovery.
“The technical violations of financial form filing requirements noted in the Final Order bear no relation to the original allegations and are remedied by nothing more than simple amendments to forms that virtually every public official would be required to make if their annual filings were subjected to the same intense scrutiny applied to Ms. Storm,” Handelman said in a statement.
Storm resigned her $123,000 position earlier this year, several months after the Republican-controlled state Senate blocked her from serving another six years as Pennsylvania’s victim advocate. At the time, she said it would be untenable to remain on the job without the chamber’s approval.
Storm has said she believes the Senate’s refusal to confirm her was the result of a personal vendetta by Republican Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, the chamber’s former leader, a claim Scarnati denies.
The two were on opposite sides of a highly charged debate in 2018 over allowing survivors of decades-old clergy abuse to temporarily bring civil suits against the perpetrators and institutions that covered up the crimes. Storm was also critical of the decision by Scarnati’s office to quietly pay the legal bills of a onetime Senate employee who had been accused of sexual harassment.
“I am human, I make mistakes,” Storm said in an interview. “But I don’t want there to be a shred of doubt out there about my integrity … I am not guilty of what they accused me of — and what I lost my job over.”
Still, ethics officials peppered their 59-page report with examples that indicate they believe Storm blurred the lines between her public and private endeavors.
For instance, they noted that Storm proposed selling copies of her memoir “Blackout Girl: Growing Up and Drying Out in America” at a state-related conference at which she was going to speak about her story. Though Storm intended the proceeds to go toward the state agency hosting the conference, lawyers for the agency nixed the idea because of potential ethical concerns, according to the report.
Ethics investigators also appeared to take aim at Storm’s close relationship with a lobbyist for Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment to establish a bill of rights for crime victims that Storm’s office championed. The two frequently worked in tandem to get the measure through the General Assembly and to voters for consideration, with the lobbyist at one point turning to Storm for help with the publicity surrounding its passage.
The lobbyist donated $50 toward Storm’s documentary, the report stated. Separately, Storm received a $50 donation from an employee of a Central Pennsylvania police department whose agency had received funding from a state commission of which Storm was a member.
But in both cases, investigators noted, there wasn’t evidence that Storm used her public position to help the two in exchange for those donations.
In an interview, Storm called the report a “full vindication,” as none of the original allegations against her were founded.
The technical violations, she said, amount to clarifications of her previous statements of financial interest — none of which she believes justified being blocked from another term as victim advocate.
Storm said she disclosed the income from one of the conferences on her statement of financial interest — a form that discloses sources of outside income as well as gifts and hospitality over a certain threshold — but lumped it in with other outside income (approved by the governor’s office) she receives for her personal work.
The second conference, she said, was work-related and had been approved by the governor’s office. She initially canceled her appearance after her father suddenly became ill, but ended up attending after he died. When she filed her annual statement of financial interest a year later, Storm said, she simply forgot to report the $842 in airfare and hotel expenses.
As for the rental income, Storm said it didn’t occur to her to report it: The money came from a friend of her wife’s who stayed in their home for six months as payment for food and other expenses.
In the interview, Storm characterized Scarnati as a political “hitman” and claimed he weaponized the ethics review process to destroy her career. She also said she believes Scarnati defamed her by publicly disclosing on the Senate floor that she was under an ethics investigation, making it appear as if she had committed major violations.
Scarnati, who did not run for reelection last year and is now a lobbyist, did not respond to requests for comment. He previously called Storm’s assertions “egregious.”
Rob Caruso, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said in an interview that when complaints are filed with his agency, investigators look at facts and evidence when making their determinations.
“The commission has never been guided by a vendetta,” he said.
Inquiries are triggered when the commission itself — or someone from the outside — files a complaint about alleged violations of the Ethics Act. The identity of the person filing the complaint remains confidential unless they come forward.
If a preliminary inquiry by the commission’s staff determines that the complaint has merit, the agency will launch a full investigation, as it did with Storm.
In Storm’s case, she agreed last month to resolve the matter. In the interview, she said she turned over years’ worth of bank statements and other financial documents, as well as emails and other records.
Her initial instinct, she said, was to continue fighting the allegations.
“I am an advocate. I speak out for people who are wronged,” Storm said. “To not speak out for myself would be antithetical to who I am. But I wasn’t going to do this at the expense of my family — and my sanity.”
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