Schuylkill County Says Votes on Tax Office Not a Conflict of Interest for Halcovage
There was nothing untoward about the vote to restructure Schuylkill County tax offices at the Courthouse. At least, that’s what the County says.
But some still aren’t buying it.
The personnel moves and office restructuring resulted in two employees receiving pay cuts. The County says it was because the offices weren’t running efficiently following another restructuring that happened two years prior.
Previously, and again on Wednesday, Clerk of Courts Maria Casey said the moves were retaliatory against two of the four women involved in the federal sex harassment lawsuit against the Courthouse and Commissioner George Halcovage.
At the very least, she said, Halcovage should not have voted on the matter and that it was illegal for him to do so.
Her sentiment was echoed by an editorial in the RepublicanHerald newspaper on April 4. The paper called Halcovage voting on the tax offices shake-up a show of “arrogance.” From that editorial:
“Also of alarm is Halcovage’s arrogance in not abstaining from a recent commissioners vote that had a direct impact on two plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Halcovage has a right to defend himself against the allegations, but to ignore an obvious conflict of interest at the height of scrutiny is exactly what Hetherington is describing when he says courthouse operations have been impeded.”
The vote was taken on March 17, a day after the lawsuit was filed.
Schuylkill County Defends Its Personnel Moves in Courthouse Tax Offices
On Wednesday, however, Schuylkill County Solicitor Glenn Roth underscored the government’s stance that the vote that happened a few weeks ago was totally on the up and up. He said the vote was definitely not an example of conflict of interest, per the definition outlined in the State Ethics code.
Roth read a statement at the Commissioners’ work session meeting on April 7. He said, “There has been much speculation regarding whether Mr. Halcovage’s vote regarding recent personnel restructuring as well as a vote on a consulting contract on today’s agenda. While the County does not comment on personnel matters, it is important to reaffirm the County’s Solicitor’s office as well as other counsel has determined there’s nothing to preclude Mr. Halcovage or any other duly elected Commissioner from voting on the prior restructuring or today’s vote.”
Now, it’s pretty clear by now that the County government comments regularly on personnel matters when it deems it appropriate or when it wants to prove a point. When someone else wants to comment on personnel matters and the County doesn’t want to hear it, they whip that rule out so fast, you don’t even know what hit you.
It’s unclear what “other counsel” Roth was referring to in his statement, however. It could be one of several outside legal firms hired to help the County government wade through a number of legal issues. Then again, it could be some lawyer who just passed the Bar exam.
Roth cited the Pennsylvania Ethics Act, specifically the definition of “conflict” or “conflict of interest” which is indeed a very narrow definition of “conflict of interest” especially in terms of the Halcovage drama at the Courthouse.
The rule reads:
“Use by a public official or public employee of the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his holding public office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of himself, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated.”
Of course, it’s a little difficult to prove that Halcovage would directly benefit financially from this move to mix up the tax offices. But must conflict of interest always be about money?
“This is a game solicitors play,” Casey said in criticism of Roth’s statement on Wednesday. “This is retaliation.”
Isn’t it a conflict for anyone with any sort of stake in a matter – like, oh, a federal lawsuit hanging over them – to be taking executive action like Halcovage and the County did back in March. He, along with Commissioner Boots Hetherington and Acting Controller Sharyn Yackenchick voted to approve the reorganization of the tax offices. Commissioner Gary Hess voted against it, calling the moves a demotion of the two County employees affected by it.
And what of the timing of the decision. A day after the lawsuit was filed? And two years after the offices had just been restructured?
The County’s saying – by saying it wasn’t a retaliatory act and not a conflict of interest – it took them 2 years to figure out that the moves they made in the past just weren’t working? If that’s not a conflict, then it’s surely an example of poor management (involving YOUR money paying for inefficiencies in government) and kicking the can down the proverbial road. Call it a lack of interest instead of a conflict of interest, then.
Roth said Wednesday, “It has been further determined by the court that pecuniary benefit as used in the conflict of interest statute must show that there is some private, financial gain. The vote today and the prior vote were the recommendation made upon review by the county’s human resources consultant, the human resources director, and County administration. Each sitting Commissioner has the right to vote in favor or against the recommendations presented to them as either a vote yes or no.”
The move made Wednesday, to which Roth is referring, is the hiring of yet another consultant to the County government. This one is Anthony Alu, who will be consultant and overseeing the Tax Assessment office at the Courthouse. Alu previously served as Luzerne County’s Tax Assessment Director until retiring in 2019. Hetherington and Halcovage voted to approve Alu’s hiring. Hess, once again, voted against another personnel move in those offices.
Casey once again said the vote on Wednesday to hire Alu was “totally illegal.”