AG Wants Nonprofit’s Board Removed

Wednesday, October 08, 2014
White River Junction — The Attorney General’s Office has asked a judge to unseat the board of directors of a White River Junction-based nonprofit that provides parental visitation services, alleging the board members failed for years to rein in an executive director accused of overpaying herself.

The petition filed in Windsor Superior Court this week alleges that the four-person board for Emerge Family Advocates failed to properly oversee longtime Executive Director Raymona Russell, who the state accuses of writing paychecks to herself on an “irregular and inconsistent basis” and paying herself from $5,000 to $10,000 more than her board-approved salary during the past three years, among other grievances.

The AG’s Office also accused some board members of attempting to shut out dissenting members who raised concerns about the lack of meaningful board oversight of the nonprofit’s sole full-time staff member and its finances.

“This is like more of a case study on how nonprofit 501c3s should not operate,” former treasurer Thomas Trunzo, one of the dissenting board members, said in a phone interview Tuesday night.

Located on Route 5 south of the VA, Emerge has provided Upper Valley families with a location for supervised visitation and child exchange between parents since its founding in 1996.

The state’s filing comes less than a month after Trunzo, a Lebanon-based lawyer, and his former law clerk, Lyme resident Joanna Jaspersohn, who is also a board member, filed a detailed petition in the same court that made similar claims as the AG’s Office.

Russell, of White River Junction, acknowledged a reporter’s inquiry via email Tuesday evening but did not respond to questions.

Emails sent Tuesday night to the two other board members, President Joseph Verdine, of Enfield, and Secretary Muriel Farrington, of White River Junction, and a telephone message left for Farrington in the evening, were not returned.

According to its page on the website for The Vermont Coalition of Supervised Visitation Programs, Emerge during 2011 served 163 families with 272 children, and provided 912 supervised visits and 634 supervised exchange services.

In the news release, the AG’s Office said that while Emerge has “continued to provide these services,” the Board of Directors has “repeatedly failed to provide necessary independent oversight over the organization’s finances, essentially giving the executive director free rein to expend the charity’s assets — including writing her own paychecks and expense reimbursements beyond what has been authorized.

“This failure threatens Emerge’s mission and has put its current funding in serious jeopardy.”

Also in court filings this week, the AG’s Office requested a preliminary injunction “to halt Emerge’s provision of services and prevent it from spending more charitable assets” until a review of Emerge’s finances is completed by an appointed special trustee, according to an news release distributed Tuesday afternoon.

The news release said the organization is funded “almost exclusively by grants from the States of Vermont and New Hampshire.” However, according to court filings this week, the nonprofit has not had a “full and independent audit of its accounts” since its inception.

According to a public tax filing, Emerge reported spending just more than $227,000 in 2012. Of that, $72,500 was Russell’s reportable compensation, and about $6,709 was the estimated amount of her other compensation, for a total of about $79,000.

In their court filing, Trunzo and Jaspersohn said Russell’s budgeted salary for the calendar years 2012 and 2013 was $65,000.

The state claims that for at least two years, Russell paid herself on an “irregular and inconsistent basis,” including paying herself multiple times per pay period or weeks and months in advance of a pay period.

Officials also accuse her of writing herself reimbursement checks “in excess of the amount listed on her expense reports,” once by more than $1,000, and giving equipment paid for by Emerge to her family members “for their exclusive use unrelated to Emerge’s charitable mission.”

For at least two years, the board has relied on Russell entirely and not employed a bookkeeper or other individual to oversee its accounts, and has not developed or approved an annual budget during that time, officials wrote in the court filings.

In interviews Tuesday, Trunzo and Jaspersohn described a dysfunctional board, with members who supported Russell and resisted concerns about the organization’s operations.

Trunzo, who has been on the board since at least 2012, said he was given access to the accounting books just once. At that time, he said, he received resistance from Russell when he asked questions about entries that were missing or didn’t add up.

He wrote a letter to the New Hampshire Department of Justice in April, requesting an investigation into the use of Emerge’s funds, saying Russell has refused to provide the board with financial information and open access to the organization’s bank accounts “for at least the past five years, maybe longer.”

In the letter, he also said Russell has “dominated and controlled the majority of the board or has bullied, harassed or forced off board members” who question her financial management, while “proclaim(ing) that she is the victim of harassment” when questioned.

Emerge’s board formally censured Trunzo and stripped him of his treasurer title in August, according to court documents and interviews.

According to the state, Jaspersohn was voted off the board on a technicality in June. Jaspersohn, who said she is a former client of Emerge and joined the board at Trunzo’s suggestion, said she does not recognize that vote because she believes it was done improperly.

Jaspersohn said she thinks the two other board members “believe that Mona can do no wrong.”

“They don’t feel that it’s their duty to double check, and they buy everything that she says,” Jaspersohn said.

All four board members and Russell are named as defendants in the state’s case.

The Attorney General’s Office recommended in the interim appointing a special trustee of Emerge and separately having Upper Valley Haven Executive Director Sara Kobylenski coordinate with other nonprofits to provide court-ordered supervised visitation and exchanges of children between parents.

The news release indicated that “given that a majority of Emerge’s funding” comes from New Hampshire, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office has communicated with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Charitable Trusts Unit throughout the investigation.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at or 603-727-3220.

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