May 7—A judge has sealed the records of Wednesday's proceedings in Schuylkill County Court against county Commissioner George F. Halcovage Jr.
Meanwhile, a lawyer working for The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was in the county Thursday seeking a transcript of the events held behind closed doors.
Lebanon County retired Senior Judge Robert J. Eby, who handles some PFA cases for Schuylkill County, issued two sexual violence protection orders Wednesday ordering Halcovage to avoid contact with two women who have accused him of sexual harassment and assault. The orders followed a conference behind closed doors in which Halcovage agreed to the restrictions without having to admit to any of the actions.
A hearing, which by law is open to the public and the press, had been scheduled but Eby ordered the press to leave and the hearing closed due to his concerns about "sordid details" that would be in the testimony. Court officials later stated that there had been no hearing because both parties agreed to the orders.
Paula Knudsen Burke, local legal initiative attorney in Pennsylvania for the RCFP, is trying to find out if the court reporter made a record of conversation in the courtroom after the public was barred and before the parties reached an agreement. Burke, representing the Republican-Herald, a Times-Shamrock newspaper, The Standard-Speaker and The Lehighton Times-News, delivered a request for transcript to the Schuylkill County prothonotary, court administration, court reporter and President Judge William E. Baldwin, as well as the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas for Eby and the attorneys for the women and Halcovage.
"The media outlets are entitled to the transcripts because judicial proceedings are public under both the constitution and common law," Burke wrote in her request. "Judicial proceedings can only be closed if good cause is shown on the record and privacy concerns are not good cause."
Four women, current and former courthouse employees, filed a 75-page federal lawsuit on March 16 against Halcovage and county officials, alleging sexual harassment and assault. Two of the women filing suit were seeking the protection orders Wednesday. Halcovage has not publicly discussed the case, referring all questions to his attorney.
As an elected official, Halcovage can only be removed from office by impeachment and a conviction in the state Senate. Later Wednesday, the state House of Representatives reported that it would begin the process of impeachment against Halcovage.
In spite of Eby's worries about "sordid details," the federal lawsuit, available to the public, already describes many incidents and details of sexual misconduct by Halcovage with the women. There were witnesses standing by Wednesday who were expected to give testimony about Halcovage's conduct; however, they were not called when the parties decided to agree.
Catherine W. Smith, Philadelphia, the plaintiffs' lawyer in both Wednesday's cases and the federal lawsuit, said there were additional allegations in the requests for the orders that she anticipates adding to the documents in the federal lawsuit. Those requests are sealed under Eby's order.