Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Schuylkill County Commissioners Split Vote on Firing of Tax Claim Office Employees

A vote on the firing of two Schuylkill County employees in the Tax Claim office ended in a tie Wednesday morning.

In November, the Schuylkill County Commissioners tabled a vote on personnel actions against Angela Toomey and Denise McGinely-Gerchak, the county's tax claim director and assistant director respectively.

During that meeting, Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot LLC, a law firm, was hired to investigate the misuse of third party information search software by those employees.

We would later learn that the software involved was LexisNexis.

The firings were later reported to be due to the two employees were allegedly running unauthorized searches on 9,145 people within the software.

Since November, those two employees have been on unpaid leave.

On Tuesday, when the agenda was made available for Wednesday's meeting, we learned the vote on the firings was back on the table.

During Wednesday's meeting, during the public speaking portion on agenda items, row officer Schuylkill County Clerk of Courts Maria Casey spoke against the firing and also asked to see the report on the investigation in the employees' alleged offenses.

"These employees are victims because they did not misuse LexisNexis".  Casey said.

"These employees never put in social security numbers or bank account information.  All they were doing was trying to find the last good address. They addressed mailings that were deemed undeliverable, they sent certified entries of claim, they searched for postings of properties, they did searches for errors, and they helped our County Sheriff and out of County Sheriffs do searches for judicial sales, and they did searches for municipal sales on liens.  The investigation wasn't independent and why didn't you interview the two employees.  They would have walked the investigator through their process.  We can't just retaliate by terminating them today."

The first item in relation to the investigation to be voted on was an agreement between Schuylkill County and Experian, a firm used for credit monitoring.  The agenda item was to approve a total cost not to exceed $277,894.41.  Due to the alleged behavior by the County employees in LexisNexis, the county will be notifying the 9,145 people that had their information searched on.  The total cost includes the price tag in printing letters and postage for notifying people as well as the payment of free creditor monitoring that will be offered to those people.

Commissioner Hess spoke on the motion.

"I think this [the vote] is a little premature." Hess opened with.

Hess referenced a phone call to Commissioner Hetherington this past Sunday where he told Hetherington that the two employees should brought forward to be questioned.

"Instead of moving forward and spending all this money right now, I think we should hold off" Hess said.

"If there were improper searches, then we need to do that, but without giving them the opportunity to have due process.  I believe we should hold off on entering this contract right now" Hess added.

When the vote occurred Halcovage and Hetherington voted "yes" to the agreement and Hess responded with "No, not at this time".

Later in the meeting, during the Human Resources portion, the agenda item on the firings was brought up.

Commissioner Hetherington voted "yes" on the firing, Commissioner Halcovage abstained by stating "A vote from me is likely to become a basis of significant economic claim with me and, thus, this pecuniary impact constitutes a conflict of interest.  Therefore, on advice of counsel, I must abstain from this vote."

Commissioner Hess spoke before voting.

"There were many sleepless nights on this matter.  I want to be fair to all.  I'm being asked to terminate two long term employees.  With the pending litigation that has been filed for harassment in the workplace, terminating these two employees at this time would be retaliatory and further expose the County to liability in the ongoing law suit.  I do not believe I've seen enough sufficient information that these two employees used the computer for the intent of any personal information to steal identity or money from anyone.  I feel these two employees like others deserve just process" Hess said.

On the question, Commissioner Hetherington voted "yes" to the firing, Commissioner Halcovage abstained, and Commissioner Hess voted "No".

Commissioner Hetherington then stated that his council informed him that Commissioner Halcovage could vote on the matter to break a tie to which Commissioner Halcovage still abstained his vote.

Later during the public speaking portion of the meeting, County Treasurer Linda Marchalk went on the record and gave a statement on why she thinks the firing should have occurred and references Maria Casey's comments.

"In my previous job and working for attorneys, I've had to perform LexisNexis or Westlaw searches for various reasons..  While yes, you do enter their name and address information, the provider does display the person's non-public information including birth date and social security number.  That is wrong and the sole searches done by both county employees should have been for specifically delinquent taxes.  We have a duty to our employees and to our tax payers, asking you to move on this.  Waiting for another 5 or 6 months on this is not acceptable".  Treasurer Marchalk said

Finally, Commissioner Hetherington gave a statement

"The underlying issues related to the position actions today to terminate 2 county employees first came to the county's attention in August of 2021.  

A third party computer service provider reported access to a computer platform from an unauthorized device.  During the time this cyber attack occurred, the county immediately began an investigation and determined 2 county employees conducted over 300 unauthorized searches on individuals.  County administration recommended twice that termination actions occur in September of 2021 and November of 2021.  

During both cases, the terminations were tabled pending further investigation.  

The county gained the services of an independent law firm.  With the cooperation of the county solicitors office, the human resources director, third party computer service provider, the county determined unauthorized searches had been conducted by these two employees.  The investigation determined that the unauthorized searches resulted in the computers displaying and access by these two employees on specific, personal, identifiable information for over 9,000 individuals.  

Furthermore, the individuals affected people in all 50 states including Washington DC and Puerto Rico.  

The final reports after the investigation concluded showed that the investigation was conducted properly and that the two employees involved should face termination.  

Today the commissioners took action to notify the victims involved to offer them credit monitoring.  We currently have no direct knowledge that any information was accessed and was used as determinant to the individuals identified. However, we believe it is necessary and the right thing to do to provide these services to the affected individuals. 

Commissioner Halcovage or Commissioner Hess voted in favor of this action strongly recommended by our administrator, our human resource director, or our solicitor.  As I previously stated, this investigation was reviewed and supported by the independent law firm.  

I am really disappointed in both of my colleagues for their lack of action today. 

As for Commissioner Hess, we delayed the action twice at his request and we cased the independent law firm to review the matter.  The firm stated the investigation was done properly and supported the proposed action of termination.  This is an absolute disgrace.

As for Commissioner Halcovage, he assured me on multiple occasions over the past year that he can conduct himself as Commissioner in spite of the pending litigation he facing. His abstentions twice today demonstrates he is incapable of performing his duties as he is supposed to do so.  If he is unable to put aside his personal issues and properly back the citizens of Schuylkill County.  He needs to resign immediately."

1 comment:

  1. I agree with that last statement without a doubt
    What's he still doing at the courthouse if he can't represent his status n perform his duties
    Is this why they all own everything n we get harassed n downright abused for trying to have property vehicles and homes its like the law owns it before we get a chance ain't that called insider trading and God Forbid someone has a baby