Ethics Board Closes Investigation of Former Pennsylvania Victims Lawyer Jennifer Storm

After more than a year of investigation, state ethics investigators found the former Pennsylvania chief lawyer for victims of crime failed to exploit her prominent public position. for the benefit of his personal businesses.

Jennifer Storm, the state’s former victim advocate, accepted two technical breaches of state ethics law, shutting down an investigation she said was launched by political enemies as a reward for his candid advocacy in important cases.

Under this agreement, Storm must amend its annual declarations of financial interests and pay a fine of $ 3,000 for failing to disclose airline tickets, accommodation or income associated with two conferences it attended in 2017 and 2018, as well as rental income, according to a copy of the National Ethics Commission report, which has not yet been made public.

His attorney, Jarad W. Handelman, noted that the agency failed to substantiate initial claims that Storm used his public position to promote his memoir and a documentary film based on them about his past struggle with drug addiction and his path to recovery.

“The technical violations of the financial form filing requirements noted in the Final Order bear no relation to the original allegations and are only corrected by simple modifications to the forms that virtually all public officials would be required to complete if their returns annuals were subjected to the same scrutiny applied to Ms. Storm, ”Handelman said in a statement.

Storm resigned her $ 123,000 job earlier this year, several months after the Republican-controlled state Senate barred her from serving another six years as the Pennsylvania Victims Advocate. At the time, she said it would be untenable to stay in office without the approval of the chamber.

Storm said she believed the Senate’s refusal to confirm her was the result of a personal vendetta by Republican Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, the former head of the chamber, a claim Scarnati denies.

The two were opposed to a heated debate in 2018 over whether to allow survivors of decades-old clergy abuse to temporarily file civil lawsuits against the perpetrators and institutions that covered up the crimes. Storm also criticized Scarnati’s office decision to quietly pay the legal bills of a former Senate employee who had been accused of sexual harassment.

“I’m human, I make mistakes,” Storm said in an interview. “But I don’t want there to be any doubt about my integrity… I’m not guilty of what they accused me of – and why I lost my job.”

Still, ethics officials have peppered their 59-page report with examples that indicate they believe Storm has blurred the lines between its public and private efforts.

For example, they noted that Storm offered to sell copies of her memoir “Blackout Girl: Growing Up and Drying Out in America” ​​at a state conference where she was going to speak about her story. Although Storm planned for the profits to go to the state agency hosting the conference, lawyers for the agency rejected the idea due to potential ethical concerns, according to the report.

Ethics investigators also appeared to be targeting Storm’s close relationship with a lobbyist for Law Marsy, a constitutional amendment aimed at establishing a victims of crime bill of rights that Storm’s office was defending. The two often worked in tandem to push the measure through the General Assembly and voters for consideration, with the lobbyist turning to Storm at one point for help with the publicity surrounding his passage.

The lobbyist donated $ 50 for the Storm documentary, according to the report. Separately, Storm received a donation of $ 50 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 either case, investigators noted, there was no evidence that Storm used her public position to aid the two in return for those donations.

In an interview, Storm called the report “full justification” as none of the original allegations against her were substantiated.

The technical violations, she said, amounted to clarification of her previous declarations of financial interests – none of which she said justifies blocking another mandate as a victims’ advocate.

Storm said it disclosed income from one of the conferences on its declaration of financial interests – a form that discloses external sources of income as well as gifts and hospitality above a certain threshold – but lumped them together with other external income (approved by the governor’s office) that 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 court appearance after her father suddenly fell ill, but ended up attending after his death. When she filed her annual declaration of financial interests 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 hadn’t occurred to her to declare it: the money came from a friend of his wife who stayed in their house for six months in payment for food and other expenses.

In the interview, Storm called Scarnati a political “hitman” and claimed he had militarized the ethics review process to destroy his career. She also said she believed Scarnati had defamed her by publicly revealing in the Senate that she was under an ethical investigation, giving the impression that she had committed major violations.

Scarnati, who did not run for re-election last year and is now a lobbyist, did not respond to requests for comment. He previously called Storm’s claims “blatant”.

Rob Caruso, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said in an interview that when complaints are made to his agency, investigators look at the facts and evidence when making their decision.

“The commission was never guided by a vendetta,” he said.

Investigations are triggered when the commission itself – or someone from outside – files a complaint about alleged violations of the Ethics Act. The identity of the person making the complaint remains confidential unless it comes forward.

If a preliminary investigation by commission staff determines the complaint is valid, the agency will launch a full investigation, as it did with Storm.

In Storm’s case, she agreed last month to fix the issue. In the interview, she said she handed over years of bank statements and other financial documents, as well as emails and other documents.

Her initial instinct, she said, was to continue fighting the allegations.

” I am a lawyer. I speak for the people who are wronged, ”Storm said. “Not speaking on my behalf would be contrary to who I am. But I wasn’t going to do it at the expense of my family – and my sanity. “

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