WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, VT — Vermont’s Attorney General Bill Sorrell last week filed a lawsuit to revoke funding of Emerge Family Advocates, Inc., a nonprofit supervised visitation center. The petition for an injunction also seeks to remove the board of directors.
The center is operated by a state legislator, family court judges and some of the professionals who appear before them.
This is just the latest scandal to hit Emerge Family Advocates, Inc., a White River Junction based nonprofit which, according to the Vermont Standard, was established and supported since 1996 in part by the Windsor County Assistant Judges.
Concerns are that some New England courts are protecting the financial investments of unethical industry professionals instead of the best interests of the families. The Attorney General’s investigation was prompted by numerous consumer complaints and a lawsuit filed by warring members of Emerge’s board of directors. That suit alleges that Emerge director Raymona “Mona” Sharkey Russell cooked the books, concealed records, and diverted taxpayer resources to herself and family members without proper authorization.
The petition also alleges that although Russell does not training in bookkeeping, she has been the sole bookkeeper with access to Emerge’s financial records. Russel has not allowed oversight groups or Emerge board members to review the books.
According to authorities, that review is long overdue.
“Why is a multi-million dollar, quasi-public entity pursuing a $200,000 +/- 501(c)(3) non-profit for an audit, when it has not apparently been audited itself?” Boardman has asked.
State budget records and recent court filings show that since 1995, Emerge has received millions in grants from State and local agencies in Vermont and New Hampshire. Funding sources include the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child Support Enforcement’s Access and Visitation program, as well as the US Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) Safe Havens grants.
Last August, the NH Bar Association interviewed Emerge Director Russell for an article about the security and funding pitfalls facing the the State’s supervised visitation industry. The article also discussed the tragic 2013 shooting of 9-year-old Joshua Savyon by his father in a murder-suicide at a supervised visitation center operated by the Manchester YWCA.
Russell told NHBA that the reason she is Emerge’s intake operator, direct service provider, security guard and janitor is because Emerge’s $174,000 does not provide enough support to follow all of the national best practices. According to 2012 tax records, Russell paid herself a salary of $72,500, an amount Treasurer Thomas Trunzo says is several thousand dollars above what Emerge’s board of directors authorized.
“We’re supposed to keep people safe, but we don’t have the funding to do all the important work we need to do to accomplish that, and a lot of it is casework,” Russell told NHBA. “It’s not just the guns. You need to know when things change, when the parents have gone to court. You need to make sure that whoever gets that information is passing it on. Have they given up hope? Are they suicidal? It’s all these things in every single case.”
But if Emerge has never hired trained security, then why has the State continued to pay Emerge to protect children from violent offenders?
Apparently, the NH Attorney General’s Office is still trying to define what it means to have “trained security personnel on-site” according to Sue Dearborn, whose job it is to administer the federal Safe Havens grant and limited state funding to six New Hampshire centers including three of which are operated by Emerge under the NH Family Access & Visitation Cooperative.
“They’re not comfortable without an officer, but it costs too much,” said Dearborn. So why not have law enforcement conduct supervised visitation for free in a secured setting like the local police stations and jails?
According to the paper trail obtained by Communities Digital News, law enforcement may have ignored the blatant improprieties taking place at Emerge.
Records from the Judicial Conduct Board show that in 2009, family court Judge William Boardman was suspended from the bench for six months in conjunction with financial misconduct Boardman allegedly committed while acting as both the court’s administrator and Emerge’s co-founding director. The JCB also required Boardman to resign from his position on Emerge’s board of directors.
According to the decision, Boardman co-founded Emerge with current director Russell, current President Joseph Verdine, and Roberta Tracy. IRS tax documents show that State Senator Richard McCormack (who sits on the Child Poverty and Health and Welfare Committees), psychiatrist Matthew J Friedman, and the late Charles Baker were also co-founders.
According to Baker’s 2007 obituary, Baker’s wife is heir to the Kinney Drugs fortune, while Baker himself was a real estate investor who served as a foster parent and guardian ad litem (GAL) for troubled Vermont children.
The JCB decision states since 1995, Boardman helped Emerge directors operate the nonprofit in a sub-regulatory capacity because Emerge did not obtain nonprofit status from the IRS or file tax returns until 2007. The JCB also found that Boardman misused his position as a court administrator to divert funding to Emerge and broker shady real estate deals with the County on Emerge’s behalf. Tax liens previously filed by the IRS against Emerge recorded in the Hartford land records support these findings.
Subsequently, Nancy Tierney, a GAL and family court attorney who served as Emerge’s treasurer, was professionally sanctioned for misconduct by attorney oversight boards in both New Hampshire and Vermont. Due to Tierney lying to authorities about her disciplinary record, those sanctions include a one year suspended revocation of Tierney’s GAL certification imposed by NH’s GAL board in 2011.
According to court documents filed last week by Sorrell’s office, the Attorney Generals of Vermont and New Hampshire have finally opened investigations into Emerge’s financial dealings.
“We are asking the court to remove the current Board of Directors and that a Trustee be appointed to oversee the center’s operations,” said Vermont Assistant Attorney General Lindsey Morgan, who clarified that the investigation and actions taken by her office are of a civil not a criminal nature.
Morgan said that although Vermont had frozen Emerge’s funding pending the outcome of the investigation, she could not comment on whether or not a long over due criminal fraud investigation was currently under way.
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