Christian Dame was hired as the interim director of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council to turn around the troubled anti-poverty agency and restore its credibility with the public.
He is failing in that task. Dame, instead, is leading the $24 million nonprofit down the same scandalous path followed by his predecessor as executive director.
It is time for the state to step in and require Dame to do his job.
Last year, an Eagle-Tribune investigation found Philip Laverriere, the agency's $145,000-a-year executive director, was spending workday afternoons playing cards and video games at the Elks Club. In the wake of Laverriere's resignation, the GLCAC was hit with a second wave of resignations after further stories revealed instances of nepotism at the agency.
Now, under Dame's leadership, the hiring of friends and family to important, high-paying posts has continued. Last week, Dame announced the hiring of Marisabel Melendez to succeed her mother, Isabel Melendez, as director of the Community Services Center at the agency.
Isabel Melendez is a longtime Lawrence community leader as well as a friend and political mentor of Mayor William Lantigua.
Marisabel Melendez seems less than well qualified for the important post. Yet Dame hired her knowing that, as he stated in a press release, her appointment "will invite scrutiny" because she is succeeding a woman "who happens to be her mother." Dame said he chose her not because of her family ties, but because of her "more than 15 years of professional social service experience."
Yet reporter Keith Eddings found that Melendez's qualifications are not all they are claimed to be.
Dame would not release Melendez's resume, but said she "managed family counseling sites at two schools" in Broward County, Fla.
But Eddings found that school personnel records show Melendez worked as a $20,588-a-year secretary in a family counseling program at Bair Middle School in Sunrise, Fla., from Nov. 3, 2004, until going on unpaid leave Oct. 11, 2010. She was laid off eight months later.
"I wouldn't say management per se," Debbie Glover, a supervisor in the counseling program, said about Melendez's duties at the school. "She was primarily a secretary. She scheduled appointments for families. She typed reports for us. Her duties were secretarial in nature. Mostly answering the phone. Filing. Things like that."
Dame also cites Melendez's experience as a project director for Lighthouse Senior Care in Lawrence. That agency failed last year before opening its doors or serving a single client because the state declined to fund it. Melendez would have directed the program had it opened.
Marisabel Melendez was also at the center of another hiring controversy 15 years ago in Florida.
Her then-fiance, Ronald Range, had recommended Melendez for a job at the Delray Beach Housing Authority, then supervised her work, promoted her and gave her an 18 percent raise all without disclosing they were engaged, according to stories in the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper. Range and Melendez had been dating for six years and were living together at the time.
Range fired Melendez the day after the story broke in August 1996. He was himself fired by the housing authority's board of directors a few weeks later. Range was later charged with grand theft for writing housing authority checks totaling $2,296 for his personal and family use, the newspaper reported.
Given Marisabel Melendez's employment history, her hiring to lead an important anti-poverty office in Lawrence raises serious questions about Dame's judgment. Dame hides behind the GLCAC's status as a private nonprofit agency and declines to elaborate on his decision. He will not say what Melendez will earn for managing the Community Services Center and rejected a request to interview her.
The GLCAC may be a private agency but about 98 percent of its $24 million annual budget comes from the state and federal government. The agency is an important one to the community, providing services to about 27,000 people in Lawrence, Methuen and the Andovers.
Last year, state investigators from the Department of Housing and Community Development laid down the law for the GLCAC, ordering the agency to clean up its act or lose its funding. The Melendez hiring makes it clear little has changed.
Now, the state needs to step in and demand that Marisabel Melendez's resume and salary be made public and, further, should review her appointment if it is serious about eliminating patronage and corruption.
Otherwise, is there any reason not to suspect that the GLCAC remains what it was a year ago?
A rogue agency that feathers its own nest at the expense of the poor.