Schuylkill County officials keep talking about this “independent investigation” into alleged “unauthorized searches” by 2 Courthouse employees conducted on LexisNexis.
But, to date, they’ve failed to produce the report to the public.
That’s not stopping them from talking about it, however. On Wednesday, they didn’t shut up about it. But again, no actual report has been produced.
We and the Republican Herald newspaper have filed separate Right to Know requests demanding the County turn over this alleged investigation report. Ours was just filed on Thursday evening but the newspaper has already heard back from the County, which requested 30 more days to possibly produce it.
In the interim, we wanted to share the tale of this alleged investigation as it was told by several County officials on Wednesday as they seem to be the only ones who’ve seen it or know of its contents.
SPECIAL SECTION: Snoopgate
Who Really Did the County’s “Independent Investigation”?
First, for some context: The County has twice tried to fire two Tax Claims office employees after it says they executed more than 300 “unauthorized searches” on the LexisNexis site. Somehow, according to information divulged by Schuylkill County HR director Heidi Zula on Wednesday, those 300+ searches have caused more than 9,100 people to have their personal information potentially compromised.
The County did not explain how a little more than 300 searches could get more than 9,000 people involved.
Commissioners Chairman Boots Hetherington, who was the only one to vote to fire these 2 employees each time it came up for action by the board, said the County first learned of the alleged “unauthorized searches back in August 2021.
The women were suspended from their jobs in September. And they’ve been suspended since. However, they’ve now survived several attempts to have them terminated from their Courthouse positions.
It should be noted that these 2 employees are part of the 4 Jane Doe plaintiffs suing Commissioner George Halcovage for sexual misconduct and other County officials – including Zula – for their complicity in his alleged behavior. Halcovage has denied any wrongdoing but abstained from a vote to fire the two employees each time, citing a conflict of interest.
Boots said Wednesday that a “third-party computer service provider reported access to their computer platform from an unauthorized device.”
At that time, Boots said this week, “Fearing a cyber attack had occurred, the County administration immediately engaged in a thorough investigation and determined that 2 County employees conducted over 300 unauthorized searches of individuals.”
Boots Provides the County’s Story
The County has never produced a report for the public on that alleged initial investigation last year. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to convince Commissioner Gary Hess that the employees should be fired. And when it came for a vote in November, he amended a motion to require an outside law firm the County was hiring to conduct its own investigation into the matter.
The County started calling this an “independent investigation” even though it was clearly paying this law firm to do it, or that’s what Hess and the public were led to believe.
But that’s not exactly how it was put on Wednesday. Read the language from statements Boots read at the Commissioners meeting this week. Who does it sound like did the investigating?
“With the cooperation of the County Solicitor’s office, the Human Resources director, the third-party computer service provider, and the law firm Eckert Seamons, the County identified specific, unauthorized searches had been conducted by these two employees,” Boots said.
From the get-go, it sounds like the County was leading the investigation. This law firm of Eckert, Seamons, Cherin, and Mellott LLC sounds like it was along for the ride. There’s more evidence to that in the rest of Boots’ statements.
“The final report from Eckert Seamons determined that the investigation by the County administration was conducted properly and that two employees involved should face termination,” he said, again dropping a pretty big hint that the County did the investigation and the law firm we’re paying to supposedly do it sat back and let it happen.
If it’s true that this outside firm made such a determination, the County has produced zero evidence to back up that claim. And regardless, that’s not what Hess requested in his vote last year.
Later, Boots provided more evidence that the County did the investigation and the law firm signed off on it.
He said, “As I previously stated, this entire investigation was viewed and supported by the independent law firm.”
Due Process Ignored?
On Wednesday, Hess accused Boots, Zula, and Solicitor Paul Datte of ignoring his request to have the accused employees come forward to possibly explain these 300+ “unauthorized searches” the County is so sure they conducted.
“Last Sunday, I called you (Boots) on the phone and said after the Eckert Seamons investigation, the two accused need to actually be brought forward again and see the new investigation and the numbers,” Hess said. “From what I’ve seen, they were only asked about 5 or 6 of (the alleged searches). I believed they should be brought in. You turned to counsel and we had a meeting during the week with Mr. Datte and Heidi and yourself.
“I asked that and didn’t get an answer in return,” Hess added.
That was all in response to the County contracting Experian to offer credit monitoring to all the individuals implicated in these “unauthorized searches.” Later in the meeting, Hess said, “I don’t believe I’ve seen sufficient information to prove that these two employees used the computer … to steal identity, money from anyone. The alleged violations have been going on for many years and there’s not been any one complaint that private information was stolen.”
Hess says he’s seen both investigations but isn’t convinced, presumably because the accused haven’t been interviewed.
“I’m not prepared to move forward with terminating these individuals until that happens,” Hess said. “These women have been suspended for several months without pay. I’m very cautious and concerned for the County’s interests. However, I see no evidence that any search was performed to obtain personal information to harm anyone’s personal identity or financial harm.”
Row Officers Quarrel
Another County official spoke out on the alleged investigation and says the Courthouse needs to act. During public comments on Wednesday, Treasurer Linda Marchalk explained why some Courthouse officials have LexisNexis access.
“The whole purpose of those searches done by those County employees should have been for, specifically, delinquent taxes. I could bet money that there are people on that list who did not have delinquent taxes and our non-public personal information is out there,” she said. “I am asking you to move on this. Waiting 5 or 6 months is not acceptable.”
Marchalk claims to have received “various letters” in those last 6 months asking “Is this coincidence or not,” suggesting that people have had their identities compromised and that could have been a result of these so-called “unauthorized searches.”
Clerk of Courts Maria Casey then spoke and from the nature of the Treasurer’s comments believes that she had access to the investigation report.
Marchalk denied having seen the report.
“That’s an incorrect statement,” she said.
Casey attempted to explain why these 2 accused employees could have done so many searches on LexisNexis, suggesting that they look up more than just people with delinquent taxes. She also believes that Zula, herself, did the investigation.
“I think Heidi Zula did the investigation,” she said, to which she got no rebuttal from any other County officials. And I think Eckert Seamons only addressed (the credit monitoring). You are kidding me that the defendant did the investigation.”
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