HAMILTON — A former fire chief in two North Shore towns pleaded guilty yesterday to submitting false EMT training records for classes he never conducted, and then lying about it to a grand jury.
"I'm sorry I did it. It was a stupid thing to do," former Middleton and Ipswich fire Chief Henry Michalski Jr., 63, told a Salem Superior Court judge as he pleaded guilty to perjury, two counts of attempted obstruction of justice and six counts of violating the state emergency service laws.
At the time, he was the director of training for Lyons Ambulance.
Michalski, of Middleton, who has prostate cancer, was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation by Judge John Lu.
Prosecutors in the attorney general's public corruption unit had urged Lu to send Michalski to jail for at least one year of a 21/2-year sentence, place him on five years of probation and fine him $6,000.
He could have faced up to 25 years in prison.
"Mr. Michalski's behavior was as damaging as any behavior can be in a grand jury," said Assistant Attorney General Jim O'Brien. "He lied to the grand jury, he misled investigators and prosecutors, and he relayed (his false testimony) to witnesses. From my perspective, that is as harmful to our criminal justice system as you can get."
Michalski's perjured testimony — as well as his efforts to obstruct justice by describing it to two other witnesses who would back up his story — nearly derailed the investigation and the revelation of widespread fraud in EMT recertifications, O'Brien said.
Instead, investigators would come to learn that Michalski had lied about conducting a refresher course at the Essex Fire Department, which had been canceled because none of the Essex EMTs needed recertification, and that he'd submitted falsified attendance rosters to the state Office of Emergency Medical Services.
Among the names on those rosters: Hamilton police Chief Walter Cullen and former Ipswich selectman and Wenham police Lt. James Foley, who allegedly testified that he'd also attended the Essex course.
Cullen is charged with letting his son sign the rosters while he was away on vacation, then submitting them for the recertification he needed to keep his position as director of the town's ambulance service.
Another man, Cullen's son-in-law, David Mastrianni, also submitted false rosters for training that officers did not attend and is serving probation for his role in the scandal.
O'Brien said prosecutors weren't sure what they would uncover when they convened a grand jury. They started by calling individuals who had a role in the certification process.
Michalski almost immediately mentioned his wife, Penny, who was a longtime employee of the attorney general's office, and his daughter, who worked there at the time, and then referenced his 40-year career as a public servant.
To both the prosecution and the grand jury, he seemed credible; one prosecutor even passed along her regards to his wife as he left the courthouse.
He'd told the grand jury that Cullen and Foley had attended all of the classes and continuing education, and even described their "grades" — Cullen got a 90, but Foley got just an 80 "because he didn't try very hard," O'Brien said.
"Mr. Michalski traded on the relationship his family had with our office, and his professional background," O'Brien said. "We were very close to saying, 'That's the end of the investigation.'"
And then, one weekend in July 2009, O'Brien was looking at a handwriting sample submitted by Cullen and the attendance rosters and realized that something didn't add up. The signatures didn't match, he told the judge.
On the day two other witnesses — Foley and another man, Jonathan Levis — were served subpoenas, investigators later found there had been a series of phone calls between them and Michalski, who then met in person with another witness, Edward McLaughlin. They would go on to back up his story — at least for a while.
One question not answered yesterday was why Michalski lied.
He was a decorated Vietnam veteran who, while serving in the Air Force, made three daring rescues from crashed helicopters that saved the lives of fellow airmen and earned him medals. He went on to a 40-year career as a firefighter, ending up as fire chief in Middleton and then Ipswich.
Scott Gediman, who represented Michalski along with Terrence Kennedy, said his client "is deeply sorry and embarrassed" by his actions.
"There's no doubt he made errors of judgment and mistakes he deeply regrets," Gediman said.
"Many people were treated differently in this matter," Gediman said. "If he'd been a public employee, he would have been given a union lawyer, he wouldn't have spoken to anybody and we wouldn't be here."
Kennedy said yesterday that Michalski will not lose his pension because he was retired when the conduct leading to the charges occurred.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis may be reached at 978-338-2521 or email@example.com.