MEA CULPA BLUES: With Baby Jesus’s birthday night upon us, now is the time to reflect upon the true foundation of our Judeo-Christian ethos. Having spent most of my life trying to forget what I absorbed in the nine years I attended Catholic school, I consider myself a de facto expert in matters theological. First, hell is just one slip on the banana peel away, so always wear golf shoes, even to the beach. The second: It’s always my fault. No matter what it may be, I am somehow to blame. With these bedrock precepts in mind, you can understand how I hold myself responsible for the oceans of hot water in which one-time wunderkind and construction magnate Mark Melchiori now finds himself.
When Mark’s father, Ugo — the founder of the family business — shook your hand, your hand stayed shook; when Mark shakes a hand, people check to make sure all their fingers are still there. The question today is not who is suing Mark Melchiori but who is not. Even his own stepmom took out papers, accusing Mark of weaseling on a $140,000 loan and then faking a divorce with his wife of 17 years to shield his sorry assets from angry creditors. And that’s the least of his problems. Melchiori — who allegedly paid himself up to $900,000 a year — is now the subject of a criminal probe, so he’d be well advised to pay his attorney. Even the federal Department of Labor dispatched a minion to a recent creditors’ hearing to take notes on Melchiori’s myriad of misdeeds. I hold myself personally responsible in this matter because several years ago, a disgruntled Melchiori subcontractor had told me Mark’s penchant for stiffing the craft workers he hired bordered on the extortionate and would make for an illuminating exposé. This took place well before the stock market and real estate crash, so Melchiori’s “later, dude” payment schemes cannot be explained — or excused — by the Great Recession. I totally dropped the ball. No doubt I got distracted by some riveting story on proposed bylaw changes at the Architectural Board of Review. But I blew it big time. Had I not, maybe Melchiori would have been put on notice. Maybe he would have cleaned up his act. And maybe major institutions — like the County of Santa Barbara or UCSB — would not have felt comfortable awarding Melchiori multi-gazillion-dollar contracts. Come to think of it, shouldn’t they have known better, too? Melchiori’s creditors can take cold comfort knowing I wasn’t the only one asleep at the switch.
In a similar vein, I blame myself for missing the boat five years ago when I was warned of an imminent meltdown at Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation — a nonprofit which operated two homeless shelters and provided 255 units of affordable housing. That agency has since flamed out because of the flamboyantly psychotic incompetence of its politically protected directors. This matters not just because of all the shelter beds and low-income housing involved, but because the County of Santa Barbara was egregiously asleep at the switch when funneling millions of federal housing dollars Lompoc Housing’s way and failing to insist upon even the most rudimentary of oversight and accountability. As a result, today, a team of inspectors dispatched by the federal Office of Inspector General are now rummaging through the underwear drawers of the county’s Community Development Department in search of incriminating skid marks. They will remain there at least two months. Typically, the Inspector General does not leave until it finds evidence of fraud. In the case of Lompoc Housing, I suspect what they’ll find is even worse — a conspiracy of intentional gross incompetence.
I was tipped off there might be a problem back in 2007. That’s when I reported how a county child welfare worker named Liann Noble was fired because she used a fake name to gain entry to one of the homeless shelters run by Lompoc Housing in order to see how it was run. Because Noble had an otherwise exemplary work record, the county’s own civil-service commission argued termination was unwarranted. But at the insistence of Lompoc Housing executives — tighter than a tick on a dog’s ear with County Supervisor Joni Gray — county administrators waged legal warfare in court for several years defending their right to fire Noble. (Supervisor Gray’s husband was the attorney of record for Lompoc Housing; Gray’s powerful administrative assistant Susan Warnstrom sat on the agency’s board.) They backed off only after Judge Denise de Bellefeuille ordered them to take a cold shower and knock it off. Noble, whom many people dismissed as a little wacky, told me at the time that Lompoc Housing was losing tons of dough by investing in sure-fire money-losing commercial real estate deals. These deals, she said, were sucking funds away from the nonprofit’s affordable-housing and shelter operations. Look into it, she said. Follow the money. Had I not been so easily distracted, I would have discovered — as did the grand jury — Noble was absolutely right. As early as 2003, we have since learned, the warning signs were flapping in the breeze. It turns out now that Lompoc Housing’s political connections were not limited to Joni Gray’s office. In 2009, a county employee asked an official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development — the source of all the federal dollars — to lower the boom on Lompoc Housing for repeatedly refusing to submit any financial statements. That HUD official — reportedly a longtime personal friend of Lompoc Housing exec Sue Ehrlich — shined on that request. We can only hope that’s something the Inspector General will examine.
Maybe for Christmas, I’ll get some medication for my attention-deficit-disorder problem (just what we need, another dog on speed). It’s a heavy burden, I acknowledge, knowing these problems were allowed to get out of control because of my inaction. Some people tell me such guilt is a delusion of grandeur that gives the sufferer an exaggerated sense of self-importance. I say bring it on; it’s reassuring to know you still matter.