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Volunteer firefighter from Pendleton pleads guilty to misdemeanor in workers’ comp fraud case

LOCKPORT – A Pendleton man who took part in a reported 177 calls for the Wendelville Volunteer Fire Company while he was receiving workers’ compensation benefits pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor Thursday, but he apparently won’t have to pay back $45,000 in benefits.

James J. Moreland, 66, of Dunnigan Road, also may avoid further punishment from the legal system. Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III, who made it clear in a pretrial ruling last month that he thought a conviction at trial was unlikely, told Moreland in a conference with attorneys “that it’s possible you can get a conditional discharge, but I’ll order a presentencing investigation.”

Moreland, who pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted fraudulent insurance practices, is to return to court Feb. 18. He will have a criminal record no matter what sentence is imposed. The maximum penalty is a year in jail.

The guilty plea saw Moreland admit to falsely stating on a workers’ comp form in August 2010 that he had not done any volunteer work while receiving benefits for a neck injury that he incurred in 2008 while driving a truck for a local blacktop company.

Murphy last month dismissed all charges against Moreland’s wife, Shirley, who took part in filling out the forms. The judge wrote at the time that he thought the prosecution would have a hard time convicting her husband of workers’ comp fraud because of the unclear way in which the questions on the form are phrased. But the judge let the indictment against James Moreland stand because it included two counts of perjury for telling a Workers’ Compensation Board administrative law judge under oath that he had not been doing any volunteer work.

The Niagara County District Attorney’s Office has filed a notice of appeal in an effort to revive the indictment against Shirley Moreland, 65.

Moreland’s alleged fraud occurred between April 2009 and June 2011. There was no mention in court of any restitution being sought, and it appeared that there would not be any. The Workers’ Compensation Board cut off Moreland from future benefits in September 2012, and that decision was upheld by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in March 2014.

Defense attorney Robert Viola said the criminal case, which at first sought restitution, “is all about face-saving for an ill-advised decision by the Workers’ Compensation Board. They ought to hang their heads in shame.”

The agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Assistant District Attorney Heather A. Sloma said, “Insurance fraud costs policyholders billions of dollars a year. I think the public needs to be aware of these types of cases.”

Moreland’s former employer, Joseph M. Frawley, agreed. Frawley, a former Pendleton town councilman, is president of Todd Co., which owns Reed Blacktop, the company for which Moreland was working when he was hurt. He said the claim cost his company money in higher workers’ comp insurance premiums and lost business.

“My company lost the opportunity to work for our largest customer for a year after the claim. We were put on probation,” Frawley said. The insurance premiums jumped immediately and didn’t return to normal for three years. Frawley would not cite an exact figure, but he said his company lost “thousands of dollars.”

He also noted that Moreland, while responding to calls for Wendelville, was working toward a potential volunteer firefighter service award, which is cash.

“This person, who was supposedly a volunteer, was collecting credits toward a pension paid by the taxpayers,” Frawley said.