A fireplace salesman’s friendly voicemail allegedly blew his cover on a decades-long fraud scheme that cost government disability benefits programs almost $700,000.

Paul Stresnak, owner of Your Fireplace Shop in Twinsburg, says the last time he saw salesman Thomas H. Cannell was when state agents came into his shop two years ago.

That visit came after Cannell had contacted the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation about his benefits.

“One of our claims specialists returned a phone call from Mr. Cannell in 2015 and heard the voicemail greeting, ‘Hello, you have reached Tom at Your Fireplace Shop,’” said Jim Wernecke, director of BWC’s special investigations department. “We took it from there.”

Federal prosecutors on Thursday charged 62-year-old Cannell with stealing more than $684,000 in both Social Security benefits and workers' compensation benefits by continuing to work even after he began collecting disability.

They said Cannell had worked out a way to avoid getting paid directly by Stresnak, who was not aware of the alleged fraud and cooperated fully with investigators, Wernecke said in a BWC blog post outlining the case.

Stresnak said he hired Cannell’s marketing company as a contractor 24 years ago to sell fireplaces. He said the company did marketing and sales for other fireplace shops as well, but Cannell was in his Twinsburg shop about four hours a day to sell, which is how he earned about $16,000 per year in commissions.

Stresnak said he did not know Cannell was collecting disability payments, but wondered how he could afford a brand new Cadillac and to play golf “nearly every day during the summer.”

Then, one day, agents from the BWC entered the shop and confronted Cannell.

“They said, ‘You’re collecting workers compensation, why are you working?’” Stresnak said, remembering Cannell responded by asking if the agents were police. When they identified themselves and who they worked for, “He just walked out the door and left.”

Stresnak said he ended up working with investigators on the case for more than a year.

“People don’t usually keep records. I keep all my records — paper records. I have records going back to 1993,” he said.

U.S. Attorney Justin E. Herdman said Thursday that Cannell was charged via a criminal information with one count each of theft of government funds and wire fraud. Charges filed by criminal information typically mean that a defendant has already agreed to plead guilty as part of a plea bargain and waives the right to be indicted by a grand jury.

According to Herdman’s office, Cannell first became entitled to disability payments after a work-related injury in 1982. However, he was also required to report to state and federal agencies whether he returned to work, at which time the benefits would end. He never did, authorities said.

Investigators from the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General and the Ohio BWC’s Special Investigations Department determined that since 1993, Cannell had collected $204,671 in permanent, total disability benefits from the state and $479,288 in Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, from Social Security.

In a clip of surveillance and investigative video posted online by the BWC, Cannell is shown going to work and even talking about his fireplace business with undercover investigators on a video time-stamped from Dec. 7, 2015. 

Reporter Dave O'Brien can be reached at 330-298-1128, dobrien@recordpub.com or @daveobrien_RC.