Keene woman pleads guilty to welfare fraud, will repay $75,000
Heather E. Melander, 43, pleaded guilty to two class A misdemeanors - welfare fraud and unsworn falsification - in Cheshire County Superior Court Friday afternoon.
New Hampshire Health and Human Services fraud investigators and U.S. Social Security criminal investigators began investigating Melander in the fall of 2011 after receiving written complaints about her lifestyle, Assistant Cheshire County Attorney John M. Gasaway Jr. said in court Friday.
Gasaway said those who tipped off investigators pointed to social media sites online in which Melander had shared information about her wedding ceremony in August 2007 to Dan Kaplan.
Kaplan is known as a successful entrepreneur in the area, Gasaway said.
Melander did not disclose her full financial picture, he said.
In a testimony letter posted on Memorable Events, a Westmoreland wedding planner's website, Melander recommends the wedding planner by describing her wedding reception, attended by more than 150 people, including how the planner had come up with the idea to have a separate tent and buffet for the 30 or so children at the reception.
Friday afternoon, Kaplan's Facebook account identified Melander as his wife and himself as the CEO and founder of Todaymedia.
In applying for state welfare benefits, Medicaid Healthy Kids for her children, Social Security benefits and benefits from an ex-husband for support of herself and children, Melander had presented herself as single with one bank account, withholding information about her marriage to Kaplan and her access to multiple bank accounts in and outside of Keene.
When confronted by an investigator, Melander tried to conceal her marriage, Gasaway said. "She was wearing a wedding ring. She was seen attempting to hide her hand up her sleeve when she was talking to an investigator."
Gasaway said the fraud goes back to January 2007.
Cheshire County Superior Court Judge John Kissinger advised her of her rights to a jury trial before he accepted her guilty pleas.
Melander said she understood. When he asked her for her highest education level, she said she has a bachelor's degree from New England College in Henniker.
Meander's defense attorney, William E. Christie, said Melander wanted to take responsibility and make restitution.
When accepting the negotiated plea for two 12-month suspended sentences, Kissinger said he took into consideration her lack of a prior criminal and her willingness to accept responsibility.
Also as part of the plea, Melander agreed to pay two $2,480 fines and restitution to N.H. Health and Human Services in the amount of $54,731.72 and to Social Security in the amount of $20,268.28.
Melander is ineligible for welfare benefits for five years. The agreement also requires her to complete any counseling or education ordered by the state and to tour a state prison.
"I understand there are a lot of records," Kissinger said to Melander. "I think if we went on to a trial it would result in significant incarceration. I wish you the best of luck."
According to city property records, Kaplan owns 600 Court St., valued at $216,000, and 94 School St., valued at $675,800.
On her Linkedin online account, Melander identifies herself as an artist and has a June 2011 recommendation posted for an interior designer she says she and her husband hired for "several substantial projects, and we would hire her again in a heartbeat!"
Melander is a member of the Monadnock Family Services Board, according to the organization's website.
Former board members David Orgaz of Greenville and Laura Hanson of Peterborough, who are also listed as board members on the website, said they completed three-year terms last fall and as far as they knew Melander had been on the board for many years.
Orgaz said he believes she is on the board's quality assurance committee and takes a very serious active role on the board. He described her as "very kind and generous," saying one December she opened her School Street home to host a holiday party for all Monadnock Family Services staff.
The board members were unaware of Melander's pending charges and Friday's plea agreement.
"To me it's an absolute shock," Hanson said.