On Tuesday, Dec. 8, leaders of Hunger Free Vermont announced that a long-time, trusted employee secretively had siphoned off the organization’s reserve funds over a 10-year period. The theft was initially discovered by the organization’s executive director, Marissa Parisi, who received a call from the charity’s bank reporting irregularities with its checking account. Parisi immediately reported the issue to the leadership of the board of directors and the authorities.
“We are devastated to learn of the theft by our colleague who we worked closely with and trusted for many years,” Parisi said. “Not only has this person endangered the service we provide for food insecure Vermonters, but also has committed a crime against the donors who trust us with their donations to do our vital work. It was very difficult to learn of this crime committed against our organization and to have the livelihood threatened of all of our extremely dedicated staff who work hard toward our mission to end hunger and malnutrition in our state.”
Parisi and the organization’s board have been actively working with law enforcement on the investigation and have pledged full cooperation in the process. The extent of the embezzlement has put the organization at risk of reducing programs or staff, as the stolen funds were not covered by insurance.
Since Parisi joined the organization in 2009, the board and staff have had high standards for internal controls, which were reviewed annually by an outside audit firm. It appears the theft began in 2006 before Parisi started with the organization, and as internal controls tightened over time, the employee’s strategy for stealing became more sophisticated.
“I’ve always been committed to a high level of accountability to our donors and the community,” Parisi said. “Unfortunately, this employee went to great lengths to subvert our internal controls and has stolen money intended for our programs that end hunger. It is hard to comprehend how our former friend and colleague could do this to us and the wider community we serve.”
The accused employee used several methods to steal the funds, including check forgery, falsifying financial statements, and making out checks to the accused as if to other legitimate vendors and recording them into the organization’s accounting software. The employee was immediately terminated and the criminal investigation is in process.
Hunger Free Vermont works on programs and policy that provide food every day to vulnerable populations including children and senior citizens. Their programmatic focus in the last five years has been providing universal school meals, childcare meals, summer meal programs for children, outreach to food insecure seniors, and teaching children and families to cook on a small budget.
“The board of directors is very proud of the work and accomplishments of this organization,” stated Rabbi James Glazier of Temple Sinai and chair of the Hunger Free Vermont board of directors. “Marissa and her staff have high standards for their programs and interactions within our communities—and have consistently met, if not exceeded their program goals. All of us on the board support the organization’s leaders and plan to do all we can to help the organization through this crisis. Under no circumstances do we want to see this successful organization unable to fulfill its crucial role in ending hunger in all of our communities.”
The organization is now working with an external accountant to review all financial systems and has been in contact directly with donors and state agencies to share specifics about changes to internal practices.
Parisi stated, “On behalf of all of us at Hunger Free Vermont, we apologize to everyone in the community this crime has impacted. The staff and board of directors are taking this matter very seriously and will continue to work to rebuild the trust of the community. We plan to fully cooperate with law enforcement to ensure there are no other victims at the hand of our former colleague.”
Hunger Free Vermont is incurring many costs as part of the investigation and working to restore their reserve funds to protect the long-term financial health of the organization. Anyone interested in making a gift to help the organization in this effort can give to the newly created “Phoenix Fund” by going to Hunger Free Vermont’s website at www.hungerfreevt.org.