Poor Relations

Guess what happened when Cleo Sims and her felonious offspring took over a Dallas anti-poverty agency

The Meadows is an old battleship of an apartment house afloat in a sea of sun-blasted pavement, weeds, and debris. Painted institutional gray, the building sits with nearly half its 51 units empty or loosely boarded up, their insides reeking of mildew and rotting carpet.

Seen through a broken window in one ground-floor unit, a pile of fast-food cups, cigarette butts, and soda bottles gives an idea of the state of repairs. The only hints of cheer in the complex's dust-and-Johnson-grass courtyard are the giggles of kids playing on the second-story balcony. When a camera is aimed their way, they smile and contort their hands into gang signs.

This corner of South Dallas, near Fair Park, is home to the entire menu of inner-city woes: drugs, poverty, blight. But for residents of the Meadows, those problems have been compounded by some of the people who claim to be soldiers still fighting the War on Poverty.

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Those people work for the landlord--the Dallas County Community Action Committee (DCCAC), a tax-supported nonprofit agency that owns the Meadows and two other apartment buildings in South Dallas and Oak Cliff and runs a smattering of federally financed programs designed to help poor people with their rent, utility bills, job referrals, and bus tokens.

Just how good a job the DCCAC is doing managing those programs is a question state auditors have been asking for more than a year. Perhaps they should talk with Esther Parker, who leases a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the Meadows, and hear her recollection of the day last year the DCCAC's new manager arrived.

"I thought she was a hoochie girl. Her dress was up to here. Top cut down to there. Big hoop earrings," says Parker, half-demonstrating the sight.

The new manager at the Meadows was 27-year-old Bridgett Sims, who recently had begun calling herself Bridgett Griffin--an apparent attempt to hide the fact that she is the daughter of Cleo Sims, DCCAC's executive director. There was a need to hide that fact. More than 75 percent of the agency's budget comes from tax money, and there are rules in its grants against hiring relatives.

Yet nobody at the Meadows was in the dark about Bridgett. She was in the habit of calling the 61-year-old Sims "my mother." Dallas authorities know something about Bridgett, too. She was busted three years ago for selling some fairly large amounts of cocaine to an undercover agent.

In October 1994, Sims agreed to sell an undercover Dallas cop a "big eight"--4.5 ounces--of cocaine for $3,100, according to a police affidavit. The officer met Sims at a house in the 2600 block of Lagow Street, near Fair Park. Sims sold the agent the drugs, left him a pager number, and told him she could supply him coke "whenever he needed more."

The narc weighed the coke, which turned out to be significantly less than 4.5 ounces, the warrant states. He paged Sims and complained about the short, and she delivered him another bag containing an additional 16.7 grams.

A week later, the officer made another buy from Sims: $2,900 for a 4.3-ounce "rock" of what tested later to be cocaine.

Sims pleaded no contest last August to three counts of drug dealing, was found guilty of the first-degree felonies, and was placed on 10 years' probation. She took the job at the Meadows in the interval between the indictment and the plea.

Bridgett's other work experience has been in hair and nails.
Parker, a 57-year-old former hardware store manager who has been renting at the Meadows for two years, says she had the new manager sized up that first day: "She was not management material."

Although there's no evidence Bridgett was dealing during her year or so at the helm of the troubled Meadows, the ground-floor office became a place for young men to stand around the front of the building and deal drugs, several tenants recall. "When the police would come, they'd run," says one tenant.

"I took one look at Bridgett," recalls another tenant, "and I knew we were in trouble."

A DCCAC brochure claims the agency is committed to "assisting low income persons finding their way out of poverty and toward more self-sufficiency."

That appears especially true if one is kin to Cleo Sims.
A Dallas Observer investigation of DCCAC has turned up evidence of nepotism, as well as complaints about questionable bidding practices and alleged kickbacks, all taking place amid a lack of oversight by a governing board that some members complain is kept largely in the dark.

At the same time, state regulators are probing the private nonprofit group's use of hundreds of thousands of dollars of government money.

While the DCCAC has undoubtedly helped some of the city's poorest residents, records obtained by the Observer show that the agency has also used its funds to pay bills for director Cleo Sims' mother, the late Annie Piper. The organization paid $298 for four of Piper's bills in August and September 1995, and $371 rent for Cleo Sims' sister Veola Valentine in late December 1995.

Sims, who spoke several times to the Observer and then stopped returning calls, could not be reached for comment on the payments. Agency employees say DCCAC permits payments to relatives, but only if they meet poverty guidelines. Dr. Charles Hunter, who was president of the group when the bills were paid, says he believes Sims' relatives were qualified.

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