Hunger Free Vermont, a non-profit advocacy and education group that works to reduce malnutrition across Vermont, said it suspects a former employee stole significant sums of money from the charity.
"We never thought it would be us," said Marissa Parisi, the organization's executive director. "I think this is one of the hardest things Hunger Free Vermont has ever been through."
Parisi said Hunger Free Vermont's bank branch recently notified her about unusual checks that were issued by an employee who had bookkeeping responsibilities. After examining those transactions closely, Parisi said she suspects the longtime staff member fudged records and used the non-profit's reserve funds as a personal piggy bank for years.
"It could, in fact, be hundreds of thousands of dollars," Parisi said of the suspected financial damage. "We've basically found that four months' of our reserve funds that we believed we had, are, in fact, now gone."
Hunger Free Vermont provides access information about 3SquaresVT, the program formerly known as food stamps, to recipients and service providers. Hunger Free Vermont also advocates for free and healthy school meals, for programs assisting Vermonters of all ages struggling with malnutrition, and aims to raise awareness of the problem of food insecurity. It estimates 13 percent of all Vermont households are food insecure.
Parisi said the worker has been terminated. Because criminal charges have not been filed, necn is not reporting the name of the former employee.
"It's devastating to all of us here at Hunger Free Vermont," Parisi said of the suspected embezzlement. "We worked very closely with this person, we had a great deal of trust with this person, and we're heartbroken."
Parisi said she believes the thefts were occurring well before she joined Hunger Free Vermont as executive director in 2009, and continued throughout her tenure.
"It was very, very skillful, and very secretive," Parisi said of the former employee's suspected scheme.
Parisi said she and her team are cooperating fully with investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and from the office of Vermont's federal prosecutor, Eric Miller.
A spokesperson for the FBI in Albany, New York declined to provide more information about the case to necn, saying, "Department of Justice guidelines generally do not allow us to comment on investigations, and I am unable to provide any further information at this time."
Former accountant Tom Hughes, who served prison time for siphoning cash from clients, said cases of embezzlement often seem shocking to victims, whether they are businesses, charities, civic organizations, or municipal offices.
"We don't want to believe something bad of people we work with," Hughes said. "In Vermont--a small place--we know our neighbors; we know the people who work in town. They often feel like family to us. And we don't want to believe something bad of the people, maybe, in our own family."
Hughes now lectures nationwide about avoiding embezzlement, from his consulting effort he calls Hire A Thief. Hughes told necn he believes business owners, managers, and non-profit directors should look at their operations with a critical eye and ask themselves, "If someone were to steal from me, how would they do it?"
"Tell your staff, 'It's nothing personal: we're all in this together if we work in the same place,'" Hughes advised. "We want to make sure everyone is protected, and that means protected from losses, and also from false accusations."
Hunger Free Vermont said it has reviewed its internal controls and has brought in a new auditor and accountant. "We want to make sure it never happens again," Parisi said.
Parisi said a new campaign, called the Phoenix Fund, is aimed at recouping some of the lost money. She said she has spoken to many of her most loyal donors and has assured them she is committed to being transparent and working to restore any trust that may have been lost.
"Most of them have been wonderful and understanding," Parisi said of donors she has spoken to. "They've said, 'That happens too often,' and I think they have faith we'll keep delivering on the services we believe strongly in as we move past this."
Parisi said work to get good meals to people who need them will continue, but noted the rest of her staff is suffering from the suspected actions of one: Parisi said Hunger Free Vermont cannot afford to give annual cost-of-living raises to employees for 2016.
"The people who work here work very, very hard. They truly believe in what we do working to end the crisis of hunger and food insecurity for children, seniors, and all Vermonters, and many of them work long hours and have advanced degrees," Parisi said of her employees. "They work here because they truly believe in the mission, and not being able to give them the raises they deserve this year is really, really hard for me."