Two firefighters who have long helped widows and families of retirees get workers’ compensation settlements — sometimes for a fee — are accusing their professional association of trying to ruin their reputations with a “malicious smear campaign.”
The pair has filed a $12-million counter claim against the Ontario Professional Fire Fighter’s Association and its president, Carmen Santoro, in response to a $4-million lawsuit naming them in early April.
That suit from the OPFFA alleges firemen Paul Atkinson and Colin Grieve improperly misappropriated a portion of workers’ compensation payouts — money the association contends should have gone into its coffers to cover the cost of paying the two men to provide services.
Neither the lawsuit nor the counter claim, filed last Thursday, has been proven in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice.
It could take years for the case to wind its way through the system.
“Everyone’s interest should be to get the best possible results for the families. It shouldn’t be about a power struggle,” lawyer Gavin Tighe of Gardiner Roberts LLP, representing the two firefighters, said Tuesday.
He denied they did anything wrong and called some accusations made against them — such as a luxury car rental at the association’s expense — “purposefully scandalous.”
“It was a Chrysler 300” for a highway trip, said Tighe. “Our clients very much look forward to this process, so that the whole truth comes out.”
Atkinson works for the Toronto fire department and Grieve is with the Hamilton fire service.
The alleged smear campaign outlined in the statement of defence involves the association contacting the Workplace Safety Insurance Board to say the two men are unqualified to represent claimants and sending an advisory to OPFFA members that there were “serious irregularities” in the way they handled claims.
“The conduct of the OPFFA . . . was malicious and tactical, and designed to inflict maximum embarrassment and reputational damage,” says the 41-page statement.
In the original OPFFA lawsuit, the association alleged the duo — while helping firefighters’ relatives with occupational disease compensation cases, such as cancer — convinced families to redirect up to 12 per cent of their settlements to them instead of to the association.
That lawsuit claims they hatched an “elaborate scheme” travelling the province to work on cases while their firehouse salaries, expenses and meals were covered by the OPFFA at a cost of about $135,000 annually.
Santoro and the association referred questions about the case to their Toronto lawyer, Rahool Agarwal of Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP.
“Nothing in the statement of defence and counterclaim has changed the OPFFA’s position,” the law firm replied in an email from its Calgary corporate communications office.
“The OPFFA and Mr. Santoro will provide a formal response to the statement of defence and counterclaim in due course and in accordance with the rules of court.”
The association’s lawsuit also names lawyer Sherwin Shapiro and paralegal Frances Furmanov. Shapiro declined comment and Furmanov did not return a telephone call from the Star on Tuesday.
While the firefighters’ association said previously it began an internal probe in August after a widow called to complain about a settlement issue, the statement of defence says “the OPFFA could not provide the name of one alleged non-party victim.”
The document said Atkinson and Grieve were groundbreakers in the growing field of helping firefighters press Workplace Safety Insurance Board claims for work-related diseases that often hit firefighters, who are exposed to dangerous chemical cocktails and smoke.
“For nearly two decades, the defendants worked tirelessly to advance the interests of these claimants and obtain the compensation their families deserved,” the statement of defence says.
The association has estimated those settlements at more than $100 million.
It started as volunteer work with the association’s WSIB committee when Atkinson and Grieve were not on shift, helping retired firefighters who were not getting official help from the OPFFA, which preferred to focus efforts on active, dues-paying members, the statement of defence says.
A backlog of cases developed after the Liberal government, which won political support from the OPFFA, passed legislation deeming that certain cancers and other diseases in firefighters are presumed to have been caused by job-related exposures.
“Our two clients are probably the two most qualified people in the province” to shepherd such cases through the workers’ compensation system, said Tighe, who previously represented late mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug in a municipal conflict of interest case.
By 2005, word of mouth had spread and firefighter families were approaching Atkinson and Grieve for help and offering to pay, prompting them to approach the OPFFA executive about charging a contingency fee, the statement of defence adds.
They approached then-president Fred LeBlanc, who advised the mandate was to assist active — not retired — firefighters, and that “any compensation agreement was to be negotiated directly” between them and retiree claimants.
“The OPFFA was not only fully aware of this arrangement but was in fact the author,” says the statement of defence.
Reached in Kingston, Ont., LeBlanc declined comment.
Subsequently, Atkinson and Grieve had formed their own corporation, Professional Firefighters Advocates Incorporated, to conduct business throughout the province.
“The OPFFA was, at all times through its executive, well aware of this situation,” the statement of defence says.
The company was “the corporate vehicle through which Atkinson and Grieve legitimately provided advocacy services to retired firefighters and spouses of deceased firefighters,” the statement of defence adds.
“At no time did these defendants . . . engage in any fraudulent scheme, conspiracy or subterfuge,” the statement continues, noting they would often visit dying firefighters in palliative care.
“The families and firefighters assisted by these defendants were fully aware of and agreed to compensate them for their efforts, albeit at a fraction of the cost that a paralegal or lawyer would have charged.”
When Santoro was elected to the executive, as previous members like LeBlanc left the board, he began “bullying” Atkinson and Grieve to cut their expenses as the number of WSIB awards started to decline, the statement of defence says.
This took a “psychological toll” on Atkinson, who took a 10-month stress leave in 2014, and on Grieve.
In February 2015, the two were called to a meeting of the association executive and ambushed with a “berating” from Santoro on the way they handled WSIB claims, says the statement of defence.
“When Atkinson and Grieve attempted to respond to Santoro’s comments, he screamed ‘I’m the f------ president’ and became verbally abusive toward them,” the statement of defence claims.
The association’s law firm said Santoro denies bullying anyone or launching a smear campaign.
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