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Suspected Embezzlement Leaves Hunger Free Vermont Cash-Strapped

Hunger Free Vermont is in dire need of donations as federal authorities investigate a long-term embezzlement that sapped its cash reserves, according to Executive Director Marissa Parisi.

The theft was discovered about a month ago by the group’s local bank branch after irregularities in a checking account were spotted, according to Parisi. The extent of the theft is still being determined, she said.

“We’re still going through everything with a fine-toothed comb and we’re working with federal authorities,” Parisi said. “It’s likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our operating budget is about $1 million a year.”

Hunger Free Vermont is a statewide nonprofit group that works to provide nutrition education and access to nutrition programs for children, families and communities. Some of that work is now threatened, and planned expansions will have to be sidelined, Parisi said.

“Our work is really important. We help feed tens of thousands of Vermonters every day through the programs we run,” she said. “First and foremost this is a crime against Vermonters. What we want is to keep doing our work.”

The suspected embezzlement appears to have been going on for at least seven years, and perhaps as long as 10. The suspected employee, who was not identified by Parisi or U.S. Attorney Eric Miller, was terminated when the theft was confirmed, according to Parisi.

“This is a matter that is under active investigation by this office,” Miller told the Vermont Press Bureau Tuesday, but said he could not share any additional information about the case.

Parisi said Hunger Free Vermont is involved in a “thorough process” with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI . She said Hunger Free Vermont has turned over requested bank records to authorities who are trying to unravel the process used to divert funds and determine the amount stolen.

"We believed that that cash reserve was fully funded but it was not." - Marissa Parisi, Hunger Free Vermont

  “That probably will be resolved in the next six to eight weeks,” she said. “What we’re doing now is fully cooperating with authorities.”

The theft appears to involve depleting the group’s operating cost reserve, a cash account that holds about four months’ worth of operating expenses. Parisi said the suspected employee  was misrepresenting the account’s value and mislead Parisi and the board about a line of credit with the bank.

“We believed that that cash reserve was fully funded but it was not,” Parisi said. “We believed we had a line of credit.”

The group secures most of its operating funds through donations in the final two months of the year. It is now in dire need of donations to replenish its operating cost reserve fund and offset costs associated with the investigation.

“I don’t know anything as to where the money went, so I don’t know if there’s any hope for recovery. Certainly if there is, my sense is that that will take a long time,” Parisi said. “We just want people to know, and know that we’re fixing it, and also to request the continued support of our community.”

A new Phoenix Fund has been created that will allow donations to be used specifically to help offset the cost of the investigation and rebuild the reserve fund.

“We’re working really hard to make sure that Hunger Free Vermont can continue its really important work,” Parisi said. “What we’re working really hard to do is recover as quickly as possible.”

This story was originally published by the Vermont Press Bureau and is republished here under a partnership with the bureau.

Neal is a a reporter for the Vermont Press Bureau. He also files reports for Vermont Public Radio.
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