Committee cites 'criminal nature' in referring Halcovage case to state AG

·5 min read

Sep. 20—The legislative committee that heard testimony in the George F. Halcovage Jr. impeachment case voted 5-1 Monday to refer it to the state attorney general, citing knowledge of information of a potential "criminal nature."

The House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Courts also authorized additional subpoenas through a unanimous vote.

The committee did not, however, take a vote that would have sent House Resolution 99, which authorized the investigation of Halcovage's conduct in office, to the full House of Representatives.

"The subcommittee being in possession of information which is of interest of a criminal nature" led to the decision to referral, committee Chairman Rep. Paul Schemel, R-90, Franklin County, said.

He did not elaborate.

Schemel recognized the possible frustration of Schuylkill County citizens with the additional steps called for in Monday's votes.

"This process has gone longer than perhaps what many would have wanted in Schuylkill County, but we are trying to move through it," he said. "We do believe there is adequate evidence to move forward with the investigation to complete that practice, and it's still our intention to do so within this session so that the House and potentially the Senate would have their chance to move forward."

The last scheduled session day is Nov. 16.

After the county solicitor and human resources office found Halcovage violated county policies on sexual harassment, conduct and discipline, and physical and verbal abuse, county District Attorney Michael A. O'Pake referred the case to the attorney general on July 8, 2020. The attorney general's office closed the case on Feb. 5, 2021, without filing charges. No details were provided, though a spokesman at the time said statutes of limitations were among the considerations.

Halcovage has denied the allegations against him. Attempts to contact Halcovage and his attorney Monday evening were not successful.

'Full development of the case'

The subcommittee members, who collected testimony during a six-hour closed-door hearing Thursday, met in executive session Monday in the Irvis Office Building for about 20 minutes and then for about nine minutes in public during which time the votes were taken.

Schemel was joined by Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, D-177, Philadelphia; Rep. Andrew Lewis R-105, Dauphin County; Rep. David Rowe, R-85, Union County; and Rep. Joshua Kail, R-15, Beaver County, in voting for the referral to the attorney general. Rep. Michael Zabel, D-163, Delaware County, was the lone no vote.

Hohenstein, who spoke more than any of his colleagues, thanked those who gave testimony and said removing a public official from office is "the most serious action" the legislature can take.

He said the task of the committee is the "administration of justice and the fair treatment of both the subject of the proceedings and the witnesses who have brought forth serious allegations." He said its other obligation is to "provide a recommendation that we feel reflects the facts and the law. This obligation requires that we provide a process that permits the full development of the case."

Hohenstein said that although the deliberations took some time and will continue to do so, they have allowed "the truth to be heard and it will fully be developed."

He said he believes fellow lawmakers in the House and the Senate who will review and vote on their work will appreciate the process.

"What we do here today will serve the citizens of the commonwealth who deserve our dedication to both the letter and the spirit of due process and the rule of law," Hohenstein said.

If the committee finds Halcovage engaged in "impeachable" conduct, articles of impeachment can be prepared. If Halcovage is impeached by the House, the state Senate would conduct a trial, and if two-thirds of the senators vote for conviction, Halcovage would be removed from office. A majority vote — 102 of 203 — is needed in the House and two-thirds of the Senate, or 34 of 50 members, is required.

Process challenged

Halcovage was critical of the process in a statement released Sunday. He said his lawyer recommended against providing non-public and unsworn testimony as requested by the subcommittee.

He said others who appeared before the committee could have made statements not under oath and that there is little recourse if what they said was not accurate.

Schemel cited Rule 51 in having all but the opening minute of the hearing held in executive session. The rule states that "if evidence or testimony at an investigative hearing may tend to defame, degrade or incriminate any person, it shall: receive such evidence or testimony in executive session, afford such person an opportunity to voluntarily appear as a witness; and receive and dispose of requests from such person to subpoena additional witnesses."

It also says no evidence or testimony taken in executive session may be released to any person or authority or used in public sessions without the consent of the committee.

Four female county employees who have sued Halcovage in federal court for sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault, were among those who testified Thursday. Their attorney, Catherine Smith, said in response to Halcovage's statement that she was told he had a chance to "speak, offer information, provide the names of potential witnesses, and submit documents supporting his alleged version of the events," but declined to do so.

Seven row officers and the other two county commissioners had sent a letter as part of the testimony collected Thursday, asking the subcommittee to recommend articles of impeachment "as the only recourse available to county government and the people of Schuylkill County to remove Mr. Halcovage from office." Coroner Dr. David J. Moylan III was the only row officer who did not sign the letter. The letter said that the county's finding of the violated policies would have resulted in the termination of Halcovage's employment had he not been an elected official.

Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-124, Rush Twp; Rep. Tim Twardzik, R-23, Butler Twp.; and Rep. Joe Kerwin, R-125, Lykens, who have called for Halcovage's resignation, introduced HR 99 in May 2021. It passed the House Judiciary Committee 25-0 and the full House approved it 200-0 in November.

On Jan. 11, the House Committee on Courts voted to consider the resolution, authorizing the subcommittee to act.

Contact the writer: amarchiano@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6023