House committee tackles Halcovage case; voting meeting Monday

·5 min read

Sep. 16—HARRISBURG — The House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Courts met Thursday to take testimony regarding Schuylkill County Commissioner George F. Halcovage Jr.'s possible impeachment.

The hearing was called to order at 9:07 a.m. by Rep. Paul Schemel, R-90, Franklin County, chair of the committee, in the Ryan Building of the state Capitol complex. Schemel laid out the committee's duty for such a rare occurrence.

"This hearing has been scheduled to receive testimony related to House Resolution 99, which has authorized the judiciary committee and this subcommittee to investigate the conduct of George F. Halcovage Jr., a county commissioner from Schuylkill County, to determine whether Commissioner Halcovage is liable to impeachment for misbehavior in office and report those conclusions and recommendations to the House of Representatives," Schemel said.

"Given the nature of the expected testimony," he continued, "it is understood this evidence may tend to defame, degrade or incriminate person or persons. As such, the committee moves that, pursuant to rule 51, the hearing will enter into executive session to receive the evidence or testimony."

With that, just one minute into the hearing, the five committee members present voted unanimously to go into executive session. The handful of others present, including members of the press and House staff, left the room.

Testimony continued until about 3 p.m., Schemel's office reported, though it wasn't know if breaks or a lunch were taken.

The next gathering of the subcommittee is scheduled for Monday in the Irvis Office Building, at which a vote on whether or not to send the resolution to the full House is expected. The House reconvenes at noon Monday.

Halcovage, who has denied the allegations, wasn't present at the start of the hearing and it's not believed that he testified. No one was seen entering or exiting the main doors of the hearing room, and no information was provided on who testified.

However, former county Human Resources Director Deborah Twigg was seen near where the committee met. Twigg, who resigned in August 2020, was the director who received reports of "serious allegations" against Halcovage on May 22, 2020.

Four female county employees who sued Halcovage in March 2021 claiming sexual harassment and sexual assault were expected to testify Thursday, but it's not known if they did. Their attorney, Catherine W. Smith, of the Derek Smith Law Group PLLC, Philadelphia, did not return an email seeking comment.

The committee, which had been previously authorized to take testimony, subpoena witnesses and receive documents, had five of its six members present, including Schemel; Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, D-177, Philadelphia; Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-105, Dauphin County; Rep. David Rowe, R-85, Union County; and Rep. Michael Zabel, D-163, Delaware County. Rep. Joshua Kail, R-15, Beaver, was not present.

County sends letter

A letter signed by seven row officers and the two other county commissioners was submitted to the committee.

It said the signees "have made significant efforts to persuade" Halcovage to resign, but "unfortunately, those efforts have fallen on deaf ears."

It repeated information previously reported about the county's investigation of the alleged misconduct and its conclusion that Halcovage "violated policies which would have resulted in the termination of his employment ... had he not been an elected official."

"While the contents of that report were not made public and we recognize the right of Mr. Halcovage to defend himself, Mr. Halcovage admitted certain of the allegations contained in the lengthy Federal District Court Complaint relating to this matter, which are inappropriate for any elected official," the letter reads.

The letter, signed by commissioners Barron L. "Boots" Hetherington and Gary J. Hess, Clerk of Courts Maria T. Casey, Controller Sharyn Yackenchick, Prothonotary Bridget M. Miller, Recorder of Deeds Ann Dudish, Register of Wills Theresa Santai Gaffney, Sheriff Joseph G. Groody and Treasurer Linda L. Yeich, said Halcovage's conduct "is not indicative of the high moral standards espoused by the citizens of Schuylkill County, yet the county finds itself in the untenable position of reluctantly having to tolerate Mr. Halcovage's continued service."

It said pending litigation has results in "numerous" voting abstentions from Halcovage that "undermines and impedes the ability of county leadership and administration to conduct the people's business and adversely affects and damages the reputation of Schuylkill County."

It concludes by 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."

The county solicitor and human resources office found Halcovage violated county policies on sexual harassment, conduct and discipline, and physical and verbal abuse. The state Attorney General's Office declined to press charges, citing the statute of limitations as one reason.

Process began in May 2021

The three lawmakers representing Schuylkill County, Jerry Knowles, R-124, Rush Twp.; Tim Twardzik, R-123, Butler Twp.; and Joe Kerwin, R-125, Lykens, introduced House Resolution 99 in May 2021 and it passed 25-0 in the House Judiciary Committee. The House of Representatives approved it 200-0 in November.

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

Hohenstein spoke at that time, calling impeachment "one of the most serious processes that we as a body have, and we here in this committee are taking this specific process very seriously."

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.

The most notable impeachment in Pennsylvania might have been state Supreme Court Justice Rolf F. Larsen, who was impeached, convicted and removed from office in 1994 on a charge involving an improper communication during a trial. Larsen's legal problems, which also included convictions for two counts of conspiracy in a plan to fraudulently obtain prescription medications, led to creation in the 1990s of the Judicial Conduct Board and the Court of Judicial Discipline, whose first president judge was former Schuylkill County President Judge Joseph F. McCloskey.

The first person impeached in the state was District Judge Thomas Cooper in 1811, per House Archives.

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