Pa. chief agrees to pay $1,525 in advance death benefits he received but was not entitled to
Arnold No. 1 Fire Department Chief Brian Gouza did not dispute owing the money and agreed to pay court fees, too
By Tony LaRussa
The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
Apr. 4—A hearing to resolve a civil claim against the former chief of the Arnold No. 1 fire department didn't even make it to a courtroom Tuesday morning.
Brian Gouza was still in the lobby of District Judge Frank J. Pallone Jr.'s courtroom when he simply responded "yes" when the judge asked if he will be making restitution payments on the money he owes.
The fire department filed a civil complaint against Gouza to recoup $1,525 in advance death benefits he received to which he was not entitled.
Gouza did not dispute owing the money after the meeting. He said he agreed to make two $150 payments every month by money order until he is paid up. Gouza also will be responsible for paying a $75 constable fee and about $150 in court costs and fees.
The civil claim against the former fire chief stems from a 2022 state audit of the fire department's Relief Association, which found it had improperly paid nearly $5,000 in death benefits for four members of the department who still were alive. The audit by the state Auditor General's Office covered 2018 through 2020.
The civil claim contends that, in May 2018, Gouza told the Relief Association's board that he got confirmation from the Auditor General's Office that the association was allowed to make advance death benefits available to members claiming hardships.
Based on the information Gouza provided, the board voted June 4, 2018, to pay Gouza $1,525.
The state audit, however, determined that "the information provided by Mr. Gouza was false," according to the complaint.
Chris O'Leath, a spokesman for the Arnold No. 1 fire department, said that because the money paid out by the Relief Association had to be paid back immediately, the expense was covered by the fire department, which is a separate organization.
The Relief Association receives money from the state auditor to cover expenses such as equipment, training and the death benefit, he said.
"One of the three other people who got payments has repaid the money," he said. "And we are on track with getting payments from the (other) two."
After the hearing, Gouza said he made a single $100 payment while he was still with the fire department in November.
"I wasn't with the department or in contact with the officers in December and didn't have a way to make the payment," he said.
According to the civil complaint, on Jan. 20, a constable served Gouza with a 30-day notice to contact the department to arrange making payments or a civil action would be filed.
Gouza said once he got the notice that a civil case was filed, he decided to wait until Tuesday's hearing and resolve the issue in front of the district judge.
O'Leath disputed Gouza's contention that he had no way to make payment arrangements after his departure from the fire department.
"There's no question about whether he owes the money," O'Leath said. "And I don't buy that he was unable to contact anybody to make arrangements to pay it back. He knew how to reach us."
O'Leath said department officials would like to move on from the matter "as soon as we are made whole again."
While the death benefit payment will be resolved once Gouza pays up, there is still an investigation into the former chief's spending habits.
Melanie Jones, a spokeswoman for Westmoreland County District Attorney Nicole Ziccarelli, said prosecutors are investigating allegations of misappropriation of funds by fire department officials but declined to say whether the focus of the probe is Gouza.
No criminal charges have been filed, according to court records.
Gouza was replaced as chief and dismissed from the department Dec. 26.
He was replaced as chief by his brother, Walter Gouza III, who previously served as fire chief. The action was taken after fire department officials accused Brian Gouza of misusing money.
The fire department's president, Al Colelli, told the Tribune-Review in early January that Brian Gouza was spending fire company money without first getting the required approval from members through a vote.
One example was an $1,800 check for T-shirts for firefighters, which they were supposed to have paid for up front.
Gouza told the Tribune-Review there is no money missing because it eventually was collected from firefighters and repaid to the department.
He said he was dismissed as chief because he did not follow proper procedures.
Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .
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