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Washington County judge questions former colleague's handling of gas case

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By Timothy Puko
Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 1:18 p.m.

Fallout from the actions of a former Washington County judge under state investigation spread on Friday, becoming the focus of a hearing in a high-profile natural gas industry case.

Paul Pozonsky, who resigned last year amid a state investigation, did not follow normal procedure in a case pitting a Mt. Pleasant family against several gas companies, the new judge on that case said.

Without mentioning Pozonsky by name, Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca noted Pozonsky and lawyers changed dates of proceedings without public notice and said he may not have cautioned lawyers about how their secret agreements could face public scrutiny.

“The whole thing is a little unusual,” O'Dell Seneca told a lawyer for MarkWest Energy Partners LP who was arguing against a request from two newspapers to unseal documents in the case. “… There wasn't at least complete transparency that occurred here. And if you have a presumption of openness in the court and all the activities that happen in it, this might raise some eyebrows.”

Pozonsky could not be reached. His attorney, Robert Del Greco, declined to comment.

The hearing was the latest in a case about one of the country's most famous gas drilling activists, Stephanie Hallowich, featured in local and national publications. With gas drill sites, plants and pipelines surrounding their home, her family took legal action against MarkWest, Range Resources Corp. and the Williams Companies Inc., reaching a confidential settlement in August 2011.

Hallowich family members were not in court on Friday. They sent a letter saying they had no position on whether confidential court documents should be unsealed, O'Dell Seneca said.

The Hallowiches previously filed a motion to unseal some of the documents, but the court dismissed the request because it was not properly verified by the family, O'Dell Seneca and MarkWest lawyer Phil Binotto said.

Lawyers for one of the newspapers obtained a transcript from one hearing that was public; in the transcript, lawyers said the gas companies paid the Hallowiches $550,000.

State Superior Court ruled in December that hearing-date changes Pozonsky approved without public notice played a role in limiting reporters' access to the hearings. The court overruled a decision from Pozonsky that the newspapers did not have a right to see the records, leading to Friday's hearing on that request.

Pozonsky resigned on June 29 after the district attorney's office questioned his order to destroy evidence in 17 criminal cases. A month before he quit, O'Dell Seneca removed him from hearing criminal cases.

That added to a backlog for a short-handed judicial team in Washington County. It added as many as four senior judges to help handle the caseload in the months since Pozonsky's resignation, said Tom Jess, assistant court administrator.

Jess declined to comment when asked whether the courts must review civil cases Pozonsky handled.

Pozonsky served a brief stint in Alaska as a Worker's Compensation Board hearing officer. He resigned in December after reporters asked his Alaska superiors about the Pennsylvania investigation.

O'Dell Seneca is likely to act quickly to decide Friday's hearing, lawyers for both sides said.

“This case is not about freedom of the press. It's not about the First Amendment right of access,” Binotto argued. “What this case is really about is the right of privacy and the right to be left alone and the right for private litigants to be left alone and settle out of court.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-320-7991 or Staff writer Bobby Kerlik contributed to this report.

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