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Opinion: It’s time for Commissioner Halcovage to resign

Now that the U.S. Justice Department has hammered another nail into the political coffin of Schuylkill County Commissioner George F. Halcovage Jr., I am ready to join the chorus of those who want him to resign.

I admit to being Johnny-come-lately in reaching this conclusion, believing that each of our citizens is entitled to due process, and Halcovage has not been charged with a crime, but the consent decree agreed to by the county and the Justice Department, which has been approved by a federal judge, pretty much sums up that Halcovage no longer can function properly in the role for which he was elected because of the restrictions placed upon him.

Denying any wrongdoing, Halcovage has so far resisted stepping down despite being asked to do so by some of the most powerful Republican colleagues in local and state government. He did, however, relinquish the board chairmanship when a county investigation confirmed allegations against him.

I share the conclusion of state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill and Carbon, who in a 2021 statement said that “it would be in the best interest of everyone involved and in the best interest of Schuylkill County for Commissioner Halcovage to step away from his post.’’ Argall went on to say that “dragging this out would be a disservice’’ to residents who elected him to help lead county government.

Other state leaders, including the three state representatives from Schuylkill County in 2021, introduced a resolution calling for Halcovage’s impeachment and removal from office.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee in June 2021 called for an investigation into whether Halcovage had abused his authority as a public official. The full committee will determine whether the House should get the case to decide to impeach Halcovage. If impeached, Halcovage would be tried in the state Senate.

The list of allegations against Halcovage smacks of the bad old days when politicians used their power and position to strong-arm employees and opponents. He is accused of numerous instances of sexual harassment, so much so that four women employed by the county have filed lawsuits against him and the county detailing a laundry list of complaints about illegal treatment, demotions and other retaliatory actions, all of which he denies.

“This resolution sends a clear message that the Justice Department will not tolerate sexual harassment and retaliation, especially when it is perpetrated by an elected official who abuses the powers of their office,’’ said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke in a statement announcing the decree agreement.

An investigation confirmed that Halcovage violated county policy on numerous occasions. So egregious were these confirmed allegations that the county solicitor and the human services department said that if Halcovage were a rank-and-file employee, they would have recommended his firing. Although fellow Commissioner Barron L. “Boots’’ Hetherington called for Halcovage’s resignation, the commissioners have no authority to remove him.

Even the Schuylkill County Republican Committee, which supported his election initially, and nearly every Republican row officer have asked him to resign, as have the members of the county’s Democratic Committee.

Halcovage is completing his third four-year term as commissioner this year. He has not announced whether he plans to run for re-election. Given what has occurred in the past, it is inconceivable that voters would give him the kind of support needed to be re-elected, but, hey, in politics, you never know. Reports indicate that there are at least 14 Republicans interested in running for commissioner this year.

The Halcovage case has not only tainted the reputation of the county and its political leadership, but it is has created a courthouse in chaos and crisis surrounded by the stench of scandal that is costing an obscene amount of money that can be put to much better use for the county’s citizens. The county has offered the four women $850,000 to settle the lawsuit, along with additional attorneys’ expenses, but the women have declined the offer as a matter of principle. Despite the consent decree being agreed upon, it has no bearing on the civil case brought by the four plaintiffs, which is being handled in federal court in Scranton.

As for the Justice Department consent decree, it places significant restrictions on Halcovage, who voted against its acceptance, saying that it would amount to an admission of guilt.

The decree prohibits Halcovage from having direct contact with the four women. If communication with any of them is required because of their jobs, it must be done through a third party.

Within 90 days of the consent agreement, Halcovage must submit to training on sexual harassment and retaliation issues. He also is forbidden to enter the offices of the four women. The decree also demands that the county set up training programs and policies for all employees and institute acceptable practices to prevent these intolerable misdeeds from happening in the future.

Halcovage’s attorney, Gerald J. Geiger, said the consent decree restrictions “assume guilt before his voice is ever heard.’’ Geiger also said that his client is “very eager to tell his story,’’ but Geiger has advised him not to comment about the case.