The former finance director of a Vermont nonprofit that works to combat hunger and food insecurity has agreed to plead guilty to stealing approximately $165,000 from the charity.
Sally Hartford Kirby of Essex Junction worked from 2004 until late 2015 for Hunger Free Vermont, an organization that advocates for statewide nutrition policies and programs serving vulnerable Vermonters, including senior citizens and children who rely on free school meals.
Kirby signed a plea agreement that was filed Monday in federal court in Burlington. In the document, Kirby waived indictment and agreed to plead guilty to forging securities. By signing the plea agreement, Kirby acknowledged she is aware she will face several penalties at sentencing, including restitution.
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"I think it's an incredibly painful crime," said Marissa Parisi, the executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. "We never thought this would happen to us."
Parisi said Kirby had a salary of $62,000, but stole at least $165,000 from the non-profit's reserve accounts by devising phony invoices and forging her boss's signature on checks, including ones made out to herself. A local bank eventually told the charity something seemed fishy about some checks, Parisi explained, which led to the discovery of the scheme.
The non-profit said it believes the amount stolen was likely greater. However, because the organization no longer has financial records going as far back as Kirby's term of employment, Parisi noted the theft of money on top of the sum of $165,000 could not have been proven irrefutably.
In December, necn reported that the charity was "heartbroken" at learning the money was missing.
Monday, necn attempted to reach Kirby for comment at her home, but was unsuccessful.
Parisi told necn as a result of the missing money, she had to leave two staff positions vacant and deny cost-of-living pay raises to other employees.
"We're doing extra work to make sure we're keeping our services available to the community," Parisi said.
"It is, fundamentally a crime of opportunity," said Tris Coffin, who oversaw many embezzlement cases when he was U.S. Attorney for Vermont.
Coffin, who is now in private practice with the Burlington law firm Downs, Rachlin, Martin, PLLC, said his advice to organizations is they should avoid having one person with unilateral control over finances. Instead, Coffin suggested small businesses or non-profits should require co-signers on checks and institute regular audits.
"Unfortunately, a responsible business owner can't just trust people," Coffin told necn. "They have to put reasonable safeguards in place."
Parisi said since the embezzlement was detected, her financial systems have been completely retooled, with new payment methods and surprise inspections on records.
"We are, without a doubt, stronger today than we were six months ago," Parisi said. "We've certainly learned a lot, and do hope we can share what we've learned with the broader non-profit community to help protect others."
In December, Hunger Free Vermont launched what it called the "Phoenix Fund" to help with costs associated with the investigation, and to restore its reserve funds. The non-profit said Monday it still has $25,000 more to raise toward its $150,000 goal.