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Anti-Hunger Charity Focuses On Serving Vermonters In Wake Of Embezzlement

Emily Alfin Johnson
Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director Marissa Parisi says the organization is working with law enforcement to do a thorough investigation into the embezzlement.

A group dedicated to ending hunger and malnutrition among Vermonters has been the target of embezzlement.

Hunger Free Vermont, based in South Burlington, says it first learned about alleged theft last month. It's still unclear how much money has gone missing but it could have a significant effect on the group heading into the holiday season.

VPR's Alex Keefe spoke with Hunger Free Vermont's Executive Director, Marissa Parisi on how they discovered funds were missing and what comes next for the organization.

On finding out about the embezzlement:

"I was very surprised to discover what was going on and I was grateful to our local bank, who about four weeks ago, worked very hard to track me down and tell me that they had seen what they felt to be some irregularities with our checking account.

"From there, what I learned from the bank made me want look closer at what was going on with our financial reporting and I immediately reported what I had found out at the bank to the board of directors. I met with our board leadership and decided that we needed to pursue, a more in-depth investigation.

"We're participating in an ongoing investigation, where I'll work with federal authorities to do a very precise and very thorough look at our financials. We as an organization have a policy to keep four months of cash reserves.

"So we believed as a board and I believed, because of the financial reports we had seen, that we had four months of cash operating reserves in the bank as well as a line of credit that would cover two months of expenses. And neither of those things exist. We're a one million dollar organization, and we believed we had a four month cash reserve. So we think it could be potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars missing."

What do you know about the U.S. attorney's investigation into this case:

"We are working closely with the F.B.I. and the U.S. attorney's office to go through a complete and thorough investigation. We're looking very closely at all of Hunger Free Vermont's banking records and financial documents to really understand the extent of what's been taken.

"But we know that it was a long time employee that worked for Hunger Free Vermont. That person had the primary bookkeeping responsibilities for the organization, and we strongly believe everything is isolated to that individual. After we initially found what we confirmed to be theft from the organization [that individual] was terminated."

On the decision to not share the identity of the perpetrator:

"What we're trying to do at Hunger Free Vermont is to tell our story. It will be up to that individual, when their identity becomes known, to tell their story.

"For right now we don't want to be focused on embezzlement or theft. We want to be focused on ending hunger, which is what we've always done. We've always been here as a very strong organization that is respected statewide, [that] is respected nationally, to end hunger and malnutrition for our kids, our seniors, and our adults trying to get back to work. That's what we want to be focused on."

"The longer term is what I'm worried about. [The money taken] was the reserve fund, that made it possible for us to have all of our operating costs covered throughout the year." - Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director, Marissa Parisi

On funding Hunger Free Vermont in the wake of the embezzlement:

"There's a couple of things that were immediately changed and scaled back. We had plans for expansion for 2016, which we scaled back. Unfortunately, we're not going be able to do our cost-of-living raises this year. So that's the immediate impact.

"The longer term is what I'm worried about. [The money taken] was the reserve fund, that made it possible for us to have all of our operating costs covered throughout the year.

"People think a lot about giving to an anti-hunger organization this time of year but less so from July to Nov. 1. Those are leaner times of the year for us. And that reserve question has always been really important for cash flow ... making sure we're meeting all of our financial obligations on behalf of the organization."

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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