07 Oct Jonathan Cartu Asserts: Schuylkill ordered to release video – Times News Online
Published October 07. 2020 02:45PM
Schuylkill County has been ordered by the state Office of Open Records to turn over the video that purports to show Schuylkill County Commissioner George Halcovage Jr. going up the hill by the public parking lot in July from the bottom lot.
County resident Douglas Litwhiler filed an appeal with the office after the county denied his request for the video.
“I was pretty excited,” Litwhiler said Tuesday.
In his filing, Litwhiler said he researched case law to strengthen his position.
“I believe that the Office of Open Records made the right decision,” he said.
The county has 30 days from Tuesday to appeal the final determination to the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas or turn over the video. Litwhiler said he has an attorney if the case should go to court, something he doesn’t believe should happen.
“I don’t think they should waste taxpayer money and fight this,” Litwhiler said.
First Assistant County Solicitor Glenn Roth was among those who received a copy of the decision by appeals officer Jill S. Wolfe.
“The county’s position to deny the video was made by the county’s solicitor’s office in conjunction with the Sheriff’s office Joe Groody’s solicitor Jim Bohorad. While we are disappointed with the Office of Open Records decision, we have the right to appeal the decision to the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas. We believe that releasing any surveillance video from the county’s security system could pose a danger to the safety and security of the courthouse, and we will review our options, and then decide how to proceed in the near future,” Roth said.
Commissioner George Halcovage Jr. did not return a call for comment. Gerard Geiger, Halcovage’s attorney, said he was unaware of the final determination. Commissioner Barron “Boots” Hetherington said he received an email copy of the decision but didn’t read it yet. Hess also received a copy, which he read. County Administrator Gary Bender did not return a call for comment.
In its 13-page response, the OOR said the county has failed to prove the release of the video would threaten public safety and security of its building, the county has not established that the video relates to the county’s noncriminal investigations, the video does not relate to the county’s criminal investigation.
“The county has not presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate how disclosure of the requested surveillance video footage would be reasonably likely to pose a threat to the public safety and security of the county’s public building,” it said.
The second position the county took is that the surveillance video relates to a noncriminal investigation, the OOR decision says.
Schuylkill County Sheriff Groody is mentioned in the decision attesting that “shortly after July 16, 2020, two county employees who previously alleged sexual harassment and other charges against an elected county official complained to Gary Bender, Schuylkill County Administrator, that the elected official in question was lying in a cluster of trees and watching them on a bank near where they were sitting in one of the employee’s vehicles in the county courthouse parking lot talking on the phone,” the decision reads.
“The county’s affidavit generally refers to an ‘investigation’ stating that the video was reviewed to determine veracity of a complaint. However, the county does not provide any evidence demonstrating that a ‘systemic or searching inquiry’ was conducted pursuant to its legislatively granted fact-finding and investigative powers, nor that the video relates to such an investigation contemplated by Section 708(b) (17) of the Right To Know Law.”
The third stance the county argued is the video relates to a criminal investigation under an applicable section of the RTK Law.
It cites how the Schuylkill County District Attorney referred the matter to the Pennsylvania Attorney General due to a conflict of interest to investigate if criminal charges should be filed, how the AG’s office requested and reviewed the video, and how the county claims it relates to a criminal investigation.
The OOR said “because the video is not, on its face, related to a criminal investigation conducted by the county, and the county has not submitted evidence demonstrating that the video relates to any such criminal investigation, the county has failed to prove that the video could relate to a criminal investigation, and the OOR retains jurisdiction over the instant appeal. As the video is not related to a criminal investigation, the OOR is constrained to find the video is public.”
The AG’s office will determine if Halcovage should face criminal charges for his alleged harassment of female county employees. The county solicitor’s office and the human resource office investigated and determined that Halcovage violated three county policies, sexual harassment, conduct and discipline and physical and verbal abuse.
The investigation determined that if Halcovage was an employee he would be suspended and recommend he be terminated.
Halcovage has declined to comment on the hill incident. He has denied the allegations against him.