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Wendelville volunteer firefighter’s case discharged over getting workers’ comp on duty

LOCKPORT – James J. Moreland, the Pendleton volunteer firefighter prosecuted for receiving workers’ compensation benefits while taking part in fire calls, was granted a conditional discharge Thursday.

“The life you’ve lived up to your current age has been blameless,” Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III told Moreland, 66.

It would be “a waste of time” to put Moreland on probation, the judge said.

Moreland, a member of the Wendelville Volunteer Fire Company, suffered a neck injury Sept. 23, 2008, while driving a truck for a local blacktop company. He underwent two spinal fusions, according to defense attorney Robert Viola, who showed the judge an X-ray depicting the plate and six screws in Moreland’s neck.

Moreland pleaded guilty in December to a misdemeanor, attempted fraudulent insurance practices, because he checked the “no” box on a workers’ comp form that asked if he was doing any volunteer work.

Moreland had been going to fire calls, taking attendance of who showed up, directing traffic and serving coffee to those dealing with the fires or accidents, Viola said.

“I would never intentionally defraud the court,” Moreland said. “It was a misunderstanding. I always had doctor permission to come back. The fire company wasn’t thorough with their records.”

Moreland, of Dunnigan Road, went on 177 Wendelville calls between April 2009 and June 2011, Assistant District Attorney Heather A. Sloma said. Moreland also passed a fire company physical in 2010 that included doing jumping jacks and donning full firefighting gear, she said.

Moreland said the physical he took was far less strenuous than that. He said it involved being able to see after a plastic bag was placed over his head and sprayed with powder.

The state Workers’ Compensation Board cut off Moreland’s benefits in September 2012, a move that the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court upheld in March 2014. The criminal prosecution originally sought restitution of $45,000, but Murphy refused to order any because it would have to be proven what level of disability Moreland was suffering at each fire call.

“Without knowing exactly what he did month to month as a volunteer, it would be impossible to determine,” Sloma said.

The cutoff cost Moreland about $100,000 in potential benefits, Viola said.

“This prosecution was a heavy-handed way to extort what they couldn’t get in the comp board,” the defense attorney told Murphy.

“Because of the obstacles Ms. Sloma has mentioned, they want your honor to do their dirty work.”

Moreland originally was indicted for alleged perjury, as well as insurance fraud, because he twice told a state administrative law judge under oath that he was not doing volunteer work.

Viola said, “Mr. Moreland took that as in reference to quote-unquote ‘work.’ He said no.”