Divers Alert Network, the international non-profit known around the world as “the Red Cross of scuba diving,” launched a new chapter in its history this week as its second CEO moved into its Durham headquarters.

Nine months after embattled former CEO Peter Bennett was forced to retire, Michael Curley took control of DAN on March 1.

A Navy officer who retired in July 2002, Curley will lead the non-profit medical research and safety organization focused on recreational diving, which has been without a captain since Bennett stepped down on June 30 following a lengthy court battle with his board of directors that left the organization in a state of disarray amidst allegations of financial improprieties and a power struggle.

“Getting a new president in has quieted the tension, and we’re up and on our way,” says DAN board chairman Bill Hamilton, who joined the board in 2002 after serving as a mediator in Bennett’s lawsuit. “DAN is not broken–it’s always been a good outfit, and now we’re back on track.”

“Mike’s a good guy and I look forward to working with him,” says board member Dick Long, a San Diego dive-equipment manufacturer who was Bennett’s most vocal critic and one of the defendants in the former CEO’s lawsuit. “We have what it takes to do the job, and now we just need to put it all together.”

Curley, 53, comes to DAN after a long career in the military. He served in the Air Force before rising through the ranks at a submarine base in Connecticut, where he oversaw the Department of Defense’s undersea biomedical research center called the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory. According to the naval base newspaper, The Dolphin, that organization developed the Navy’s diving tables (guides for divers that tell them how long they can stay at what depth without endangering their safety), conducted research on hearing and vision in the deep, and developed and ran training programs in submarine-specific medicine.

Curley could not be reached for comment in his new office on Monday.

Curley takes over the $14-million-a-year enterprise at a key turning point in its history. Bennett, who had held the bridge since DAN’s birth in 1980, is a Duke University professor who built the non-profit from a tiny department at Duke into a well-respected worldwide organization with more than a quarter-million dues-paying members, most of whom also buy dive accident insurance through DAN. In 1993, Bennett created DAN’s off-shore for-profit subsidiary that handles the non-profit’s income-generating insurance business aimed at financing DAN’s research mission.

But conflicts between Bennett and his bosses on the board of directors over financial and management matters bubbled under the surface of the private non-profit even as its revenues soared with nearly 20 percent increases each year after the creation of the for-profit arm. (See “Deep Trouble,” indyweek.com/durham/2003-01-15/cover.html).

In May 2001, the board pressured Bennett, then 71, to retire quietly in the face of allegations of self-dealing, nepotism, mismanagement and expensive junkets; Bennett retaliated by suing to keep his job until 2005, while proposing a generous retirement package for himself that included staying on in a consulting role. The case settled privately out of court after 18 months.

Today, Bennett remains active in directing International DAN, a separate but related organization that encompasses a network of DAN affiliates in Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia and Africa.

The American DAN board has been searching for Bennett’s successor for about a year, following the lawsuit’s conclusion September 2002. Board members initially planned to have a new CEO in place before Bennett’s departure last summer.

Curley was among three finalists for the job. The other two–Drew Richardson, a high-ranking executive with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, and Australian research physiologist and technical diver Simon Mitchell–turned the job down, according to board members.