Judge grants order against Halcovage
Schuylkill County Commissioner George Halcovage Jr. has been ordered by a judge not to “abuse, harass, stalk or threaten” two women who asked a judge for protection.
Later in the day, state representatives called for the impeachment process against Halcovage to begin.
Lebanon County Judge Robert Eby made the ruling in a sexual violence protection order Wednesday after what was scheduled to be a hearing in courtroom 4 of the Schuylkill County Courthouse.
Halcovage was present with Catherine Smith, his lawyer. The two women identified as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 were represented by attorney Amy Kruzel.
A sexual violence protection order is designed to protect the victims of such violence from further abuse and/or intimidation by their abuser, regardless of if criminal charges have been filed against the perpetrator, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. The difference between it and a protection from abuse order is in the relationship between the two. A PFA requires an intimate or household relationship while an SVPO does not and is available to victims of sexual violence at continued risk, according to the coalition.
In the order, which expires March 22, 2024, Eby said Halcovage shall not contact either woman, one who lives in Orwigsburg and the other Frackville, by any means. He is prohibited from going to their homes. Penalties for violating the order may include arrest for indirect criminal contempt, which is punishable by a fee of $1,000 and or up to six months in jail, the order says. Other penalties are possible.
The order was entered by agreement of both sides but without admission of Halcovage.
He is still permitted to “be present in any workplace location,” the order states. However, the no contact provision of the order relates to direct contact.
“Any direct contact necessitated by employee relationship shall be accompanied by a third party,” the order states.
Media not allowed
Media representatives were told to leave at the start of the proceedings. Eby said the lawyers and the litigants requested it. After a more than 45-minute recess, reporters representing the Times News and The Republican-Herald voiced their objections to the proceedings being closed, citing the importance of the public in the proceedings because it involves a public official.
Eby listened but still prohibited access. Paula Knudsen Burke, local legal initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she contacted the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, Schuylkill and Lebanon County, and received a call back from Schuylkill Court Administration who spoke to Eby.
“There was no hearing and the case was resolved by agreement,” Burke was told.
The order says there was no hearing and is done “without acknowledgment of the facts in the temporary order issued March 22.”
Human Resources Director Heidi Zula and Glenn Roth, first assistant solicitor, were seen entering the courtroom.
Melissa Melewsky, attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said limiting access is a problem.
“Judicial proceedings are public under both the constitution and common law and the only way they can be closed is if good cause is shown on the record. This is a significant constitutional issue, she said, adding the fact it is a public official makes it all the more important.
She said “the least restrictive means must be used and “privacy concerns are not good cause.”
The case file was not available at the Schuylkill County Prothonotary Office on Wednesday. An employee said it was sealed by Eby. Stacey Witalec, director of communications for the AOPC and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, confirmed the case file was sealed but provided no order by Eby.
Melewsky said “good cause must be shown to seal a file, and any seal order must be narrowly tailored using the least restrictive means. Sealing an entire case file is an extraordinary step and one that is constitutionally suspect. If there is a seal order, the court has to provide a copy so that the public can understand what special circumstances warrant excluding the public, if any, and decide whether to appeal the order. All seal orders are appealable to a higher court,” she said.
Halcovage has been sued in federal court by four women, all Schuylkill County employees, who have accused him of sexual harassment. Their names are not in the lawsuit, but they are identified as Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, Jane Doe 3 and Jane Doe 4. Other defendants are also named in the suit.
County and state leaders have called for Halcovage to resign.
On Wednesday state Reps. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill/Berks/Carbon; Joe Kerwin, R- Dauphin/Schuylkill; and Tim Twardzik, R-Schuylkill, introduced a House resolution to call upon the Judiciary Committee to begin an investigation into Halcovage and whether an impeachment or removal from office is required due to alleged misbehavior in office and violation of public trust.
“This is very rare for legislators to ask for the investigation of a public official,” said the delegation in a news release.
“Unfortunately under the circumstances we believe it is necessary. Today, we start the process of impeachment. As Schuylkill County representatives we have an obligation to our constituents to determine the facts in this case and proceed accordingly.”
Earlier this week, state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill/Berks, also called for Halcovage to resign.
Halcovage, a Republican, took office in 2012.