Who is following whom?
By Frank Parlato
As the Niagara Gazette reported last week, for Town of Niagara Councilman "Rob Clark and some of his neighbors in Belden Center, the presence of a private investigator has prompted questions about who is being watched, and by whom."
On his Facebook page, as the Gazette story accurately reports, Clark has chronicled his encounters with a pair of vehicles spotted in his neighborhood.
Some of Clark's neighbors have done the same, expressing concerns about the presence of the cars, one a green Pontiac and the other a red Acura.
Ryan Thomason, who lives next door to Clark, told the Gazette that the man in the car, has "the whole town in an uproar... He's making a lot of people very uncomfortable."
Clark followed one of the cars — the red Acura — after it spent some time parked in his neighborhood - to Town Supervisor Steve Richards' auto garage and Clark posted on his Facebook page a photo of the vehicle in the parking lot there.
Others, too, were quoted in the Gazette article to the effect that they think they were being followed and watched, as a retaliatory gesture by Richards, something he was doing to his political enemies, they said.
"It's all about intimidation," one of them told the Gazette.
The Niagara Falls Reporter wanted to determine if Clark was right. Was he being followed by a private investigator, hired by Richards, to follow and intimidate him?
Richards told the Reporter that the investigator was not following Clark, but rather people who live near Clark, and invited this writer to a work session of the town board to learn the reason why.
At the meeting, Susan Koral, a workers compensation specialist for the town's consulting firm, Self Funding Inc., told the town board that investigators have been hired because of the high amount of compensation being paid out for the volunteer fire department.
She explained that the investigator was investigating potential workers compensation fraud, some of whom live in Belden Center, where Clark lives.
She also explained that, while the town of Niagara's overall workers compensation claims are relatively small, the volunteer fire department's claims are unusually high.
"Those people are probably never going back to work and those people the town will probably pay forever," she told the board.
It turns out that the town has paid out over $3 million to a hand-full of people once connected with the fire department. Richards named some of the biggest claimants.
At the meeting, which became at times heated bewteen Richards and Clark, Richards said, "The average worker compensation premiums for a year for volunteer fire departments in Niagara County are on average $2,550. The town of Niagara pays more than $300,000 (more than 100 times the average). We plaid out $312,800 last year."
It was surprising to learn that the entire contract for fire prevention in the town is $238,000, making the cost of paying a handful of workers compensation claims for ex volunteer fireman more than the cost of fire prevention for the entire town.
"Usually I wouldn't do this, but I am going to," Richards said to Clark in the meeting. "I am not going to disclose the injuries. But, as we know, Rob, you are making a claim that a private eye was following you around and I was paying for it. Had you just drove into the shop instead of taking the picture...you could have talked to the guy and you would have found out that since April 19 he has been watching Amber Jasper."
He handed Clark a file and said, "This is the whole file on Amber that started April 19. You say on your Facebook page that I'm following you around. Now be a man and take it off."
"Nope," Clark said.
"Ok. Second one being followed, for obvious reasons, is Barry Mitchell. He's being followed because he has a history for being ... There is a picture of ... I have to disclose this because of what you printed on your Facebook (is) a compete lie."
After some discussion Clark said, "Why are (the investigators) seen around the corner watching my house? ... And following me?... Why would they be telling state troopers and people around him when he's in a group that you know... Since when is the town responsible for hiring a private investigator?... I thought it was up to the insurance company."
"The town of Niagara is self-insured," Koral answered. "It is the town's money and they have a say in how it is spent."
"It's the taxpayer's money," Councilman Danny Sklarski broke in. "Taxpayers are paying over $250,000 per year and we are $60,000 short."
"That's besides the point," Clark said.
"Wait a minute," Sklarski said,...Every municipality has a private investigator to get people that are taking advantage ... We have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the taxpayers, especially if there is potential fraud involved. Do you have a problem with that?"
"Yeah, you're grandstanding," Clark said.
"I'm stating a fact," Sklarski said.
"I have a problem with the whole situation," Clark said.
Richards added, a moment later, "You're a member of the fire company and now, because of your Facebook, the whole investigation is blown. You shouldn't even be having this conversation because it involves you, as a member of the fire company."
Richards showed Clark a document and said, "You keep saying the town is paying for (the investigation of Clark). There is the bill..."
"I still don't believe all of it," Clark said. "...Why would you and go and tell people (about who was being investigated)?"
Richards said, "I said just right now who they were following so the press knows that you are lying and I'm telling the truth."
"Of course, the press, no offense, Mr. Parlato, is going to believe you," Clark said.
"They should," Richards said. "They got all the facts."
The argument continued over whether or not the investigator was investigating Clark.
Richards alleged that Clark's friends vandalized the investigator's car.
"My neighbors didn't beat up his car," Clark said.
Richards said he had witnesses.
Clark insisted he was followed.
Finally, Richards blew up. "It is costing the town $300,000 per year and in every other town it costs $2,500 per year (that's why there is a private investigator and not to follow you!)
"Fraud can be a misdemeanor or a felony... Under section 114 A of the law," Koral added.
Clark insisted. "I got the bill. I looked at the pictures. I looked at the dates. Some of the stuff seems probably right. Some of the other stuff on there at times he's supposed to be watching someone else, but he's clearly nowhere near there from what I've seen."
Richards taunted him. "On your Facebook, when you creeped down beside the car and took the picture (of the investigator) Why didn't you come over to the shop? I would have introduced you to the guy."
"If I stepped on your property and even a sneeze you would have me arrested," Clark said.
The hostilities went for a time and after the meeting adjourned, I spoke to Koral in the hallway.
"Have you caught any of these people for fraud?," I asked.
"We try to catch them. Amber Jasper, she is receiving benefits, potentially for life... We asked her if she could work and she said, 'I cant, my husband's deployed.' It wasn't her husband; it was her boyfriend."
"What does his deployment have to do with her disability?"
Koral explained that some of the others were dubious indeed.
"One guy went to fire convention and allegedly was intoxicated and fell off a float and the Town of Niagara taxpayers have been paying him ever since..."
"Those old cases slip through the cracks," Koral said, as she expressed concern about the size and types of claims.
"Half a dozen people, costing more than $300,000 per year and most of them have been on it more than a decade... I always look at what their occupation was and the common denominator here was that they were all self employed contractors. That hit me, slapped me across the head."
Most were self employed contractors? I asked. They volunteered. They were injured and now they get lifetime compensation. What about Amber Jasper?
Koral said, "She had a wrist injury and some sensory loss. It is not something you can fake, but if it was any of us, we would be working."
A few days later, I interviewed Richards.
He told me there are 22 volunteer fire and ambulance departments in Niagara County. The highest workers compensation premium in the county, (next to the Town of Niagara) is $12,000 That is Lewiston Fire, No. 1. The second highest is Miller Hose, $11,500, he said. The lowest is Hartland at about $1,000.
The taxpayers pay $1.22 per thousand for the claims of a few individuals whose claims are under investigation.
That means for a hundred thousand dollar home, someone will pay more than $122 for the workers comp for these few people. The amount the town pays for workers comp is more than the town pays for fire protection. That is an amazing fact and unique in the county, perhaps almost anywhere.
Do you think that some of the people taking compensation are fakers? I asked.
'Hello," Richards said.
Curiously, as I observed the list, two of the six worker comp claimants are named Jaspers.
Out of some 35 members, there are nine Jaspers on the fire department roster.
Ray Jasper got $659,514 and I was told he was a self employed contractor. Another man, got $530,892 and was also a self employed contractor. Another man got $408,428. Amber Jasper has gotten $124,000.
The Reporter visited the Niagara Active Hose Fire Co., Inc. at 6010 Lockport Road. and met with Chief Dan Hosie.
Hosie said that if he found out that someone, anyone, was cheating the system, he would "blow them in, in a minute."
He expressed concern that the entire fire department should be tarnished because of claims that may or may not be valid, made decades ago, before he was chief.
His fire hall was clean and looked efficient. It was certainly not lavish and it need be told that none of the firefighters were paid to do what they do- make hundreds of calls every year for emergencies.
It also needs to be told, as Hosie told it, that the work firefighters do is dangerous and requires bravery.
Finally I spoke to Amber Jasper
She told while once at a fire in 2007, a car fled past the blockade and pulled the fire hose that was in her hand and wrapped around her hand, dragged her, injuring her.
She gets a bi-weekly check of $496 plus her medical bills are paid.
She has complex regional pain syndrome, and she said she has pain but takes no medication.
"I am in constant pain, " she said.
"You are basically unable to carry things. I can carry a certain limit. The most that I have tried to pick up is about 30 lbs. .... There are days when my arms is just not useful. Other days, I just push through the pain."
The Reporter had obtained pictures culled from a video that purportedly show Amber carrying large boxes and flinging tables one in each hand into a car, Amber said she wasn't sure if the pictures were her or not.
I showed her the pictures.
She said they might be pictures of her sister or her cousin, she wasn't sure.
Admittedly the pictures were not clear, having been taken from a distance.
"I can't carry tables, I'll tell you that," She said.. "I could not pick up a table if I needed too."
She did admit that it was her carrying two large boxes to a car in her arms. Jasper said, the boxes were filled with toddlers clothes and were as "light as a feather."
"I have nothing to hide," she said
Other witnesses the Reporter spoke to said that another person on compensation was seen on his roof and another was cutting trees. Their names have been held until the investigation is complete.
Several of them were self employed contractors before they were injured as volunteer firemen and then got on regular payments.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
May 14, 2013