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Firefighters may face big wage loss in training scam

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / January 4, 2011

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Officials in Haverhill are moving to discipline 29 city firefighters accused of submitting phony training records, the latest punishment in a scandal involving more than 200 first responders across the state.

After a lengthy investigation, city officials have notified 22 firefighters they could be suspended without pay for more than 600 hours — nearly a third of their annual wages — or even fired outright. The other seven firefighters could be suspended for about 300 hours.

State and local officials say the firefighters took part in a scheme that let them renew their emergency medical technician and paramedic licenses without taking part in required training.

Mayor James J. Fiorentini notified the firefighters about the potential sanctions after receiving the recommendations of the fire chief, Richard Borden.

Borden recommended that firefighters be suspended at a minimum and warned that they could be demoted or fired, city officials said.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office, however, stressed that no sanctions had been determined and that hearings would begin later this month.

“There’s still a long way to go,’’ said Andrew Herlihy, the mayor’s chief of staff. “This is just the first step in a long process.’’

Herlihy said city officials would stagger any suspensions to maintain adequate staffing levels and minimize overtime spending.

Fiorentini, who has previously called the firefighters’ scheme a breach of the public trust, declined comment yesterday on the advice of the city’s attorneys.

“All the city has done at this point to schedule hearings,’’ he said in an e-mail message.

Greg Roberts, president of the firefighters’ union, said it was premature to comment on the cases before the hearings.

Police Chief Alan DeNaro, who assisted in the city’s investigation, said the firefighters declined to discuss the matter with officials on the advice of their lawyer.

The Eagle-Tribune newspaper reported the potential sanctions yesterday.

Under state law, emergency responders must complete a recertification program every two years to refresh their skills and stay current with new techniques.

Last May, state public health officials revealed that more than 200 EMTs and paramedics in Massachusetts and New Hampshire had received credentials without attending a class. The training programs peddled certificates to responders in multiple communities, including Boston and Haverhill.

State investigators determined the medics had received their initial certifications legitimately and found no evidence public safety was compromised.

In June, the state stripped the medics of their professional licenses.

In November, five people were indicted in the alleged scheme, including a Boston and Haverhill firefighter.

The alleged ringleader, Leo Nault, was certified to teach training courses but instead simply gathered emergency workers’ signatures on attendance forms and submitted them to state accreditors from 2006 to 2009, prosecutors say.

Nault, who faces charges of conspiracy and submitting false documents, worked at Trinity Emergency Medical Services in Haverhill.

Jeffrey Given, a former firefighter in Haverhill, is accused of collecting signatures from his colleagues. He was fired in September.

The suspects are due in court this month. The state attorney general’s office continues to investigate the matter, a spokeswoman said.

Since the scheme came to light, state public health officials say they have stepped up oversight and are studying ways to minimize fraud in recertification courses, according to a spokeswoman.

In 2009, the Haverhill Fire Department was caught in controversy when four firefighters were suspended over improper use of sick days.

The Fiorentini administration had hired a private investigator to follow firefighters who called in sick.

In Boston, which pays firefighters 37.5 hours of overtime if they complete the training, the 21 people identified in the state probe remain on the job as firefighters, but not as medics.

“No one’s been disciplined,’’ said Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald. “But the investigation is still ongoing.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.