2013-01-23 / Local & State

Pa. Judge Questions Secrecy Deal In Gas Drill Case

WASHINGTON, Pa. (AP) – A judge said Friday a former colleague didn't follow normal procedure in sealing court documents in a highprofile case over natural gas drilling.

The Hallowich family claimed the value of its home was wiped out by natural gas drilling on neighboring properties, and it settled a lawsuit against three companies in August 2011. The companies denied they caused pollution.

Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca said Friday that the original judge in the case, Paul Pozonsky, may not have cautioned lawyers that their secret agreements could be open to the public. She also said Pozonsky and lawyers in the case changed dates without public notice.

Pozonsky previously was reprimanded for ordering the destruction of evidence in drug cases and resigned last June without giving a reason. He moved to Alaska and became a state worker but then resigned again amid questions about whether his family's political connections played a role in his hiring. Alaska labor officials said personnel records related to Pozonsky's hiring were confidential, and The Associated Press couldn't find a valid phone number for him.

At a hearing on the Hallowich matter, a lawyer for the gas companies said that opening the confidential settlement would infringe on rights that entitle people and companies to keep deals private.

The Hallowich settlement contained a gag order, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter, of Washington, sought to have that overturned, saying the details should be open.

The Hallowiches gained national attention after claiming that nearby drilling operations and a gas processing plant made the property that they bought in 2005 worthless and posed health risks.

O'Dell Seneca says she'll issue a ruling after reviewing documents in the case, but she didn't indicate when.

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