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Niagara volunteer firefighter still faces workers’ comp fraud case, while charges against wife are dropped

LOCKPORT – An indictment charging a member of the Wendelville Volunteer Fire Company with workers’ compensation fraud was allowed to stand last week, but there is one more legal hurdle before the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office can bring James J. Moreland to trial.

At the same time, Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III dismissed all charges against Moreland’s wife, Shirley Moreland, “in the interest of justice.”

James Moreland, 66, of Dunnigan Road, pleaded not guilty after he was indicted in August on two counts of first-degree perjury, nine counts of first-degree offering a false instrument for filing and eight counts of fraudulent workers’ comp practices. His wife, 65, faced false-instrument and fraudulent-practice charges.

They were accused of lying on a workers’ comp form by trying to cover up Moreland’s active membership in the fire company from April 2009 through June 2011. During those two years, James Moreland was collecting compensation for a neck injury he suffered in 2008 while driving a truck for Reed Blacktopping, of Pendleton.

He pocketed $45,000 in comp benefits while taking part in 177 fire or ambulance calls during that period, Assistant District Attorney Heather A. Sloma said during previous court appearances. The state Workers’ Compensation Board cut off Moreland’s benefits in September 2012 because of his volunteer activities for Wendelville, a ruling upheld by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in March 2014. He was barred from receiving future comp benefits, but he wasn’t ordered to repay anything.

If Moreland is convicted on criminal charges, however, such restitution probably would be ordered, leading Robert Viola, his attorney, to accuse the state of trying to use the criminal courts as “a collection agency.”

Murphy wrote in his decision, “The court believes it unlikely that even a conviction on all counts would warrant a prison or jail sentence for either defendant. Even probation would perhaps be unnecessary.”

The criminal case started with a complaint filed against the Morelands in Lockport City Court, but not until a year after the Appellate Division ruling. Murphy said he wants to hear details of the timing of the investigation to make sure that rules on speedy trial weren’t violated.

Such hearings “are relatively rare, so the fact they ordered one is significant,” said George V.C. Muscato, Shirley Moreland’s attorney.

No date is set for that hearing; another is to be scheduled on the admissibility of James Moreland’s statements to State Police on March 24.

Much of the criminal case, Murphy wrote, boils down to a question on the state’s WA-1 form that asks, “Since the time of the accident for which you are receiving workers’ compensation benefits, have you engaged in any work activity for any employer or in your own business for pay or on an unpaid basis?”

The Morelands answered no, believing that the question didn’t apply to volunteer firefighting, and that answer led to the false-instrument charges. The perjury counts against James Moreland pertain to testimony before the Workers’ Compensation Board’s administrative law judge on two occasions in 2010, when he allegedly denied doing any volunteer work since his injury.

Murphy called a conviction for a knowing intent to defraud “unlikely.” However, because of the perjury charges and his finding that there is “more than sufficient evidence” for those two counts, he let the indictment against James Moreland stand. But he threw out the charges against Shirley Moreland because of “this overreaching attempt on the part of the authorities to entangle Mrs. Moreland in offenses that are more clearly the responsibility of her husband.”