The judge overseeing the Jane Doe lawsuit against Schuylkill County government and Commissioner George Halcovage ripped into the embattled politician over a conversation he had that he shouldn’t.
The matter at hand is a conversation Halcovage had at a funeral in Pottsville on Jan. 20, 2023. That conversation was with Paul Straka, a former County employee, whose name came up in a deposition taken in the ongoing case.
Earlier that month, Jane Doe 3 testified in deposition that Straka had told her about Halcovage alleging using County-purchased office supplies for his insurance business.
Halcovage attended this deposition and obviously heard what Doe 3 said. With that information, the Commissioner apparently approached Straka at the funeral on the 20th.
The following day, Straka spoke to Jane Doe 4, and apparently relayed the conversation he’d had with Halcovage at the funeral.
On Feb. 7, Halcovage was deposed on this conversation and seemingly admitted to it happening. Court documents show Halcovage testified regarding that conversation.
Carlson provides a transcript of that specific point in the deposition.
Q: So why — from 2014 until 2023 — what happened to make you go up to (Straka) and ask him about what he thought about your purchasing of insurance supplies through the County, other than (Jane Doe 3’s) deposition?
Halcovage: It piqued my curiosity.
Q: What piqued your curiosity?
Halcovage: The deposition, it did.
Carlson had been asked by the attorney representing the Jane Doe plaintiffs to hold the Commissioner in contempt and to sanction him for his actions regarding that conversation and violating the gag order in place.
Case participants entered into a Discovery Confidentiality Order on Nov. 12, 2021.
Carlson writes, “This court order specifically applied to the disclosure of deposition transcripts and the content of depositions. At the time we entered this order, it was our expectation that all parties and participants in this litigation would scrupulously comply with the court’s directives, directives which explicitly forbade the disclosure of the contents of depositions deemed confidential.”
Catherine Smith, the Jane Doe attorney, told Carlson he should make Halcovage and Straka testify to compel them to admit the conversation happened.
But after reviewing the deposition transcript that he released this week, Carlson determined it wasn’t necessary to compel that testimony. He says Halcovage literally admits to having that conversation – and by doing so, violating the spirit of the confidentiality order – in his February deposition.
“We will address this motion based upon what we see as conduct, acknowledged by Halcovage, which we find inappropriately evaded the plain meaning of our order,” Carlson says.
The judge says Halcovage’s conduct is “particularly problematic” in this matter. He revealed how the Commissioner tried arguing that his conduct was above board as it related to the gag order.
“Halcovage seemingly suggested that his conduct was entirely appropriate because: “I did not talk deposition testimony. I talked to him about –that – was there a concern when he was there that I had used things for personal use in my insurance business,” Carlson writes, attributing the quote the Halcovage.
Carlson writes that Halcovage had been warned against similar behavior during the course of this litigation. And the judge says he can “categorically reject” Halcovage’s argument trying to justify his conversation.
“This prior order should have put Halcovage on notice of his obligation to avoid any appearance of impropriety,” he says. “Yet despite this admonition, we find ourselves presented with admitted conduct by this party that, at best, can be seen as an evasive attempt to skirt the confidentiality order approved by his counsel and adopted by this court.
“Halcovage’s claimed distinction between disclosing the contents of a deposition and further revealing the fact that the information came from a deposition is metaphysical, meaningless, and approaches mendacity. It strains credulity to believe that an individual of Halcovage’s intelligence and sophistication would not have recognized the highly problematic nature of this conduct,” Carlson writes.
The result of this chastising from Carlson is a narrow sanction against Halcovage. He has ordered the Commissioner to “read, review, and gain a thorough understanding” of the rules ordered in this case. Carlson also warns Halcovage about speaking out about any parts of this case that could be construed as confidential.
To get that understanding on the record, as it were, Carlson ordered Halcovage to sign and file an Attestation by April 17 indicating he’s aware of the rules of the case and will follow them.
The case record shows Halcovage has already filed that Attestation.