Captain Crunched

A connected Parma fireman rose up the ranks. State investigators may yank him back down.

Peter Kuper Mac's Backs Paperbacks, 1820 Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 17


A day of skiing, a steak dinner, and all the beer you can drink was, at $50, a bargain for droves of Northeast Ohio firefighters who hit the slopes of Brandywine Ski Resort on a Sunday afternoon in 1995. The muscular dystrophy charity event -- exclusive to area fire crews -- was the social event of the season. But George Moser, then a paramedic with the Parma Fire Department, would be going home before the bar opened.

He was a casualty of the day's main event: the team slalom race, in which five firefighters grasp a 50-foot fire hose, then snake their way through the slalom poles down Buttermilk Trail. During the Parma squad's run, Moser wiped out -- and stayed down.

Dennis Archer and other colleagues arrived to find Moser grimacing, cursing, and clutching his knee. The ski patrol carried the injured man to the infirmary. Moser filled out an incident report and signed his name. Archer signed on as a witness. Medics instructed Moser to seek medical treatment for the knee. The fireman drove home alone, while the others reveled till 1 a.m.

When Moser arrived for work the next morning, he was anxious for action. He traded places with another paramedic so that he could be on the ambulance runs, which come more frequently than the engine duty to which he was assigned. "It's unusual for a guy to volunteer for the wagon like that, for no reason," a co-worker says.

When the squad got its first call, Moser's team dashed to the scene. As crew members hustled out of the ambulance, they found Moser sitting on the road in anguish.

He would later tell doctors that when he stepped from the ambulance, he slipped on "black ice," felt his leg lock up, and heard his knee pop.

Moser failed to tell doctors he had badly damaged the same knee while skiing just the day before. Nor did he mention the Brandywine incident in claim forms filed with the Ohio Bureau of Worker's Compensation. Since the injury appeared to have occurred on the job, the torn anterior cruciate ligament qualified him for $2,486 in worker's comp coverage.

The news raised eyebrows around the station. "There were about a dozen of us who were there the day before, when he hurt his knee," says one firefighter, speaking on condition of anonymity. "When we heard that he fell again, we were all saying, 'Gee . . .'"

As employees tell it, few in the Parma Fire Department actually believed Moser was hurt on the job. Still, no one countered his claim. "A fire station is like a brotherhood," one employee explains. "It's hard to rat out one of your own guys."

Moser, however, would eventually prove the exception to this rule.

It's common knowledge in the department that Moser runs with one of the city's smallest but most influential crowds. He golfs with Safety Director Robert Dybzinski. He's close to Assistant Fire Chief Dennis Ryan, who in his acceptance speech for the job was heard to say, "I couldn't have done any of this without the help of George Moser." Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason is also a golfing buddy, Parma government sources say.

[Mason and Dybzinski did not return repeated phone calls for this story. Ryan declined to be interviewed, and Moser referred Scene to his attorney, who did not return repeated calls.]

In the years following the injury, Moser would be viewed as a rising star within the department. He was promoted to lieutenant, then deemed the department's best prospect for a new captain's post being proposed. He not only scored the highest on the civil service exam, but was also held in high regard by Dybzinski and Ryan, who helped form the list of candidates, co-workers say.

Yet suspicions arose last winter when the department asked the Parma City Council for the new "training captain" position. The Northern Ohio Firefighters Union backed the request, but since the duties differed from those of a typical station captain, it asked for a new round of testing to determine the most qualified candidates. Department superiors would not compromise, workers say. They wanted to keep their existing list -- the one that had Moser at the top.

"It seemed they were creating a position just so they could promote George," one firefighter says.

Though the new position was approved, the debate between union and superiors stirred up acrimony. The department backed off, never requesting funds to fill the position.

Still, some firefighters remained appalled by what they saw as a power play, orchestrated by Moser's friends expressly for his benefit.

"He's got a lot of big hitters in his corner, and he plays on it," one firefighter says. "I think that creates a lot of bad feelings among everybody, especially how arrogant he is about it."

A member of Moser's crew recalls how Moser once nearly came to blows with a cop at a chaotic fire scene. When the crewman warned Moser that the incident could be grounds for suspension, the firefighter says Moser winked, grinned, and said, "I can get away with anything I want in this city."

Others nicknamed Moser "Lieutenant Do-for-Me," a reference to what they say is his worldview: "What can you do for me?" He is known to refer to himself in third person, asking critics, "Why are you so anti-Moser?"

By many accounts, the anti-Moser bandwagon had grown crowded by December 1999. That's when a tip showed up on the Bureau of Worker's Compensation website. It told of Moser's fall at Brandywine, the incident report he signed, and the job-related injury he claimed the next day.

The walls of the brotherhood would swiftly crumble.

Bureau investigators Steve Koler and Bob Sourek got a copy of the Brandywine report. Archer, who signed it as a witness, confirmed the skiing injury and referred investigators to several other witnesses. Firemen Bob Eiben, Jim Maradits, Todd Kulina, and Rick Kern all testified to the fall. Maradits even recalled videotaping the accident. Though he could not locate the tape four years later, he did tell investigators of a conversation that took place not long after the Brandywine event.

"Moser contacted him a few days after the accident occurred, regarding the videotape," the bureau's report says. "Maradits said Moser asked him to erase the tape."

Firefighter Tony Mlady provided investigators with another damning story. At a 1996 softball game, the report says, Mlady asked Moser about the knee, and "Moser said he had hurt it while skiing. Mlady asked Moser how he went to work the next day. Moser stated he ground his teeth until the first ambulance call and then fell. Moser then told Mlady he 'fucked up' because he filled out an incident report at Brandywine."

The bureau agrees with this point, though "fucked up" is not the technical term it employs. "Let's just say it didn't bode well for him," laughs spokesman Rob Glenn.

Moser hurt his own cause again on March 3, 2000, when he heard a knock on his front door. He found Koler and Sourek standing on his porch. They asked to come in. Moser didn't answer; he just stepped out and let the screen door close behind him. The investigators asked him what knee he had injured during the ambulance run.

"Moser indicated he could not remember," the report says. "Koler then presented a Brandywine report indicating that he had injured the same knee the day before. Moser complained that Sourek and Koler were 'questioning his integrity.'"

He then dismissed the investigators, saying he wished to speak to his attorney.

Glenn is confident the bureau has caught Moser red-handed, but some firefighters won't believe it till it happens. The case is more than a year old, and they've only seen Moser's fortunes improve since the inquiry began.

In December, after the investigation was completed and the department alerted, Moser was nonetheless promoted to captain of Parma Station 4.

"The matter was under investigation, but he has not been found guilty yet," says Fire Chief James Higginbotham.

Some firefighters find such logic novel. "If there are candidates who are not under felony investigation, then why would you pick a guy who is under felony investigation?" one asks.

The promotion dealt a double-whammy to department morale. Moser was appointed to replace popular Captain Jerry Guska, who died of a heart attack at age 51 after spending some 30 years with the department. If, with his connections, Moser was a "made man," as colleagues say, Guska was the quintessential self-made man who accumulated promotions by demonstrating natural leadership.

Moreover, his death came not long after firefighters accused a member of their Local 639 of embezzling money from union coffers. The thefts are alleged to have occurred over more than a decade and total as much as $160,000. The FBI is investigating.

With the possibility of more black clouds to come, some among the rank and file wonder why superiors aren't being more proactive with the Moser case.

"This guy is looking at a felony," says one fireman. "I can count 19 rules violations [of the department's code of conduct]. Put him on administrative leave until this is settled. It would send the message that discipline is applied equally, whether you're friends with the top guys or not."

So far, Moser remains on the job. The Industrial Commission of Ohio, the administrative arm that handles worker's comp disputes, will soon hear the fraud case against him. At worst, the commission could order Moser to pay restitution. The real threat is the state attorney general's office, which is exploring criminal charges. A conviction could bring an order to pay restitution and a up to a year in jail -- not to mention the loss of his city job.

But if there was any doubt among firefighters that Moser's high-placed friends might abandon him, it was squelched last week at an initial Industrial Commission hearing on the case. Dybzinski, Ryan, and Mason were all on hand to show their support.

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