Word of donor data leak at Liberty House reveals internal turmoil

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Strong Liberty House advocate State Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, picked up the “big check” donated in 2016  to the Liberty House following a Trump campaign fundraiser.

MANCHESTER, NH – There’s something going on at Liberty House that has several former board members worried about the future – things that signal “the little non-profit that could” is sputtering a bit, following a recent shift in leadership and shuffling of board membership.

The veterans outreach has come into focus following a letter sent out by Executive Director Jeff Nelson.

In the letter, Nelson references that the Attorney General’s office has reviewed the situation – which involves “compromised” donor data via two laptops that were sold by Liberty House to exiting employees.  Following review, the information in question doesn’t constitute a “breach” by NH standards, or raise concerns for the AG’s office.

But the matter to those involved feels far from settled.

The small 10-bed outpost for homeless veterans has had its ups and downs, but in recent years, has been on the up. Recognized for its can-do spirit – the organization’s board agreed to  reject federal dollars two Januarys ago in order to keep the mission of “sobriety first” intact. In return, Liberty House has continued to reap rewards in the form of donations for standing its ground – the non-profit organization receives an annual outpouring of financial support from agencies, businesses and private citizens that more than covers its operating expenses.

By 2016 Liberty House had more than tripled the money earned through fundraising, going from $200,000 in 2014, to $686,000 – a banner year which included more than $100,000  raised through Donald Trump’s pop-up fundraiser, via the Stuart Rahr Foundation, which operates out of Trump Tower in New York.

Protecting donor base

And so, with its robust donor base and a sizable nest egg, transparency is key – which is why, in the case of the laptops sold to exiting employees, it’s important to understand who knew what, when – and understand why things weren’t handled faster or more directly – says Diane Hathaway, donor and longtime supporter of Liberty House.

She received the letter last week [see below]. The letter advises that “a Liberty House donor list has been accessed without authorization.” Names, addresses, and maximum donation amounts given by 485 donors – plus 15 copies of donated checks – were “compromised.”

Although no “sensitive” data like Social Security or credit card numbers were leaked, a donor list that includes maximum donation amounts and copies of signed checks could be considered quite valuable to someone with bad intentions, says Hathaway.

“My first reaction was the person who wrote it didn’t take any responsibility for the breach. There was no apology, and it was long. I had to ask myself what is going on here? It left me with a bad feeling,” Hathaway says. “It left me with more questions than answers, to be honest.”

Liberty House in Manchester, a sober living retreat for veterans in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.

Those familiar with the data in question, including former board member Denise “Dee” Moore, say the number of donors whose information were compromised is drastically misrepresented in the letter.

“It’s more like 4,000,” says Moore, who describes herself as patriotic – the daughter of a veteran who got involved with Liberty House as a volunteer years ago, around the time her own daughter enlisted in the military.

She regards the letter as short on details and heavy with innuendo and vague finger-pointing toward former employees. Moore resigned from the board of directors around the same time the letter was drafted, and maintains that things at Liberty House started to change not long after Nelson was hired.

It’s not personal

She wants it to be noted that she was part of the search committee that enthusiastically hired Nelson, whose resume reflects 30+ years in law enforcement and education, having worked as an officer for Goffstown Police, and Chief in Dunbarton, a stint as an adjunct professor at Plymouth State College, and director of campus safety at Phillips Exeter Academy, before his most recent job, as an instructor for Job Corps.

Liberty House Executive Director Jeff Nelson. via LinkedIn

“I was 100 percent behind him. I felt his record was good – the only thing was he wasn’t a veteran, and I even stood up for him when people questioned that decision, to hire an executive director who wasn’t a veteran for veterans’ outreach,” Moore says. “I have no animosity toward Jeff. All I can tell you is what I know, and what I believe the truth is.”

Over the past six months Moore says changes have been implemented, often without board inclusion or discussion. That alone gives her pause.

“We were kept in the dark about things. We had to fight to find out what was going on. All of a sudden you’d find out about a policy change that went into effect without a vote,” Moore says.

One such decision was made by Nelson in December, says Moore, when he agreed to sell two MacBook computers used for company business for $400 each to two employees whose jobs were being eliminated.

“Jeff took it upon himself to sell those laptops to Marissa Baynes, a part-time accounting person who was let go in December, and Jennifer Kilar, who did our marketing and social media,” Moore says. “In fact, we were told as a board before Christmas that Jennifer was going to be let go January 2, and we were told not to discuss it, or let her know that anyone on the board knew in advance. I felt awful about it.”

Unanswered questions

When contacted Monday for comment on this story, Nelson agreed to a phone interview, but later declined saying he was “too busy.” He instead provided the following statement:

“We learned about an alleged breach of a donor list and began a course of due diligence. First, we contacted the NH Attorney General’s Office of Charitable Trust Unit. Moreover, we made a referral to local law enforcement to conduct a criminal investigation regarding our donor information. Further, we notified all donors who donated prior to the point when the allegation came to our attention. Liberty House had written a formal information security plan and pertinent policies, and trained staff to dramatically improve our information security. We remain committed to our mission to help homeless Veterans.”

An email with follow-up questions for Nelson was sent by ManchesterInkLink Monday afternoon, including:

  • who he believes should be the focus of a criminal investigation;
  • which agency has been asked to investigate;
  • does Liberty House take full responsibility for the data leak;
  • why the time lapse between when the computers were sold and when donors were notified that their information was at risk.

There has been no response from Nelson.

Manchester Police Lt. Brian O’Keefe on Tuesday confirmed that a detective took a report from someone at the Liberty House on April 2. It is listed as an active investigation.

Kilar, one of the two employees who walked away from Liberty House with laptops full of donor data, has not seen the letter. But when told about the content of the letter, she said it adds to the disappointment she’s experienced since losing her job.

She handled the organization’s website and social media accounts, and developed fundraising events. She also worked to cultivate donors, both private and corporate. She was getting ready to make a downpayment on her first home when she was blindsided by a pink slip.

She says it sounds like Nelson is laying the blame on others. Or more precisely, he’s basically pointing the finger at her.

“[The letter] feels disingenuous. He’s the one to blame. He’s the one who sold the computer to me and to Marissa. It’s not like I stole the laptop. He had to know both of us had been working on these laptops for a year and a half,” says Kilar. In the blur of her abrupt dismissal, it took Kilar a day or two to realize the lapse of security from management, by allowing her to leave with organizational data. She wasn’t sure what to do about it.

In the meantime, Moore had heard through the Liberty House grapevine that Nelson had sold the computers to Kilar and Baynes.

“This sent little bells ringing in my head. These were two employees who’d just lost their jobs, and potentially, could do anything with that information. The next day I went in and asked to speak privately with Jeff – I knew as a board member I was financially responsible if sensitive information was breached, and if there were a lawsuit of some kind, I personally could be financially responsible,” Moore says.

She says she asked Nelson if the computer drives were wiped before they left the Liberty House. This was in mid-January, says Moore.

“He told me he had a friend in the computer business. He said they were wiped. He used the phrase ‘restored back to factory specifications.’ He told me not to worry, that it was all taken care of. The thing he didn’t know is that, one day prior I had spoken with Jennifer, who told me that her computer contained donor information going back to July of 2015,” Moore says.

Moore decided to take her concerns – and a flash drive with a sample of the data –  to Terry Knowles, former assistant director of Charitable Trusts at the NH Attorney General’s Office, who recently left that post to teach public administration as an adjunct at UNH Manchester.

AG: Data leak doesn’t equate a breach

Moore had first encountered Knowles during her previous stint serving on the Liberty House board. Without going into detail, Moore said this was not the first time internal financial strife had eroded the board’s foundation. She didn’t want to see things unravel again. Moore says Knowles gave her specific instructions, which included calling for an emergency board meeting and bringing everyone in on the situation.

“I didn’t go to the AG’s office to make waves, or turn anyone in. I was asking for help to figure out what we should do. Terry said we needed to have a meeting and we also needed to get personal attorneys to represent each board member. And we should issue a public statement as soon as possible,” Moore says.

She doesn’t understand why it took three months before the letter was sent.

Although Knowles was unavailable for comment, on Monday Thomas Donovan, Director of Charitable Trusts for the NH Department of Justice, said as far as his office was concerned, the incident does not rise to “breach” status under New Hampshire law.

“One of the things we heard about several months ago was there had been a couple of laptops that had been transferred to departing employees that contained donor information. That’s not a data breach under the state statute, because it didn’t contain credit card numbers. Checks do not fall under the statute involving data,” Donovan said.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but we understand Liberty House is taking steps to address it by notifying donors, and to see that it doesn’t happen in the future. We’ve reviewed the information and they have not run afoul of any of our laws,” Donovan said.

Shake-up on the board

Another former board member, Doug Walls, said he’s disappointed in how things have turned out. When contacted Monday for comment he said that he recently was notified via email that he was removed from the board, for lack of attendance.

Wall explained his job required him to travel around the country, and that he normally attended meetings via conference call, something that was acceptable for most of his tenure on the board.

Due to a recent change in Liberty House bylaws, compounded by board meetings which often were called last minute, or “randomly changed,” according to Wall, he was not meeting attendance requirements, and he was dismissed.

“Under the new bylaws, if you miss three consecutive meetings, you’re out,” says Wall. “It was never a problem in the past. But in the last three months the board has had a rapid transition – the former board chair, Dave DiPerri, also left in the past few weeks,” he says.

He also noted that he was the only board member who had the distinction of being a former Liberty House resident, in 2014 – something he believes is important in preserving the mission and focus of the organization.

“I absolutely got my life back thanks to Liberty House,” says Walls. “I will never berate or belittle the organization. They gave me the ability to crawl, then walk and then run. It was a stable foundation and I went from working at Labor Ready on Bridge Street, to getting a steady job, a beautiful home, a significant other – I  put my life back together, and other people on the board could see I had become a sort of role model.”

He is disappointed to be off the board. As for the situation with the laptops and donor data, Wall says even though what happened doesn’t legally qualify as a “data breach,” it should be taken seriously.

Liberty House should be a politics-free zone

“Something is not right there,” Wall says. “The direction they are going – it feels to me like there’s more focus on the financial end than what Liberty House does for veterans. The board is focused on raising money.”

He also firmly believes Liberty House should be free from political influence – an issue that was front and center when Trump wanted to present a big check to the organization. Liberty House declined to be in a photo op with a campaigning politician.

Wall cited what he described as an internal “power struggle,” including the resignation of former board chair David DiPerri and rapid rise of his replacement, J.P. Marzullo, a longtime conservative activist and former state Republican Party Vice Chairman.

Last week Liberty House announced the addition of two new board members to fill open seats –  State Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, a veteran and politician, and Wayne Lesperance Jr., a former political science professor now Dean of New England College Undergraduate Residential Programs.

An attempt to reach Marzullo and DiPerri for comment by Manchester InkLink was unsuccessful.

Pictured from left, State Rep. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, Liberty House Board Chairman J.P. Marzullo, State Rep. Reed Panasiti, R-Amherst, and state Rep. Howard Pearl, R-Loudon, members of the New Hampshire Legislature’s “Beer Caucus,” which is focused on fundraising.

“There’s no place for politics at Liberty House,” says Wall. “When I joined the board I brought a voice that was needed, in my opinion. I had lived the experience. The board has to represent those who have struggled. If the board loses sight of that, they’re not going to understand how something might effect a person recovering from PTSD or addiction – something that is so important to what makes Liberty House a success.”

Moore says talking about the situation is going to make the issue sound personal, like a rift between herself and Nelson. She admits she was hurt by the way she was treated when she first raised the issue to the board, but after some soul-searching, decided removing herself from the mix was the best way forward.

“This whole thing happened because Jeff Nelson sold those computers and left that information on them. There is no third-party acting in the shadows. The letter talks about transparency, and I had to laugh about that. If they’d just come forward when it happened and said, ‘hey, we made a mistake – ’ instead, they compounded a mistake with untruths that I’m worried will hurt Liberty House and its credibility,” Moore says.

She says speaking up was the only way she could have a clear conscience. Not being transparent with supporters is a slippery slope, says Moore. 

“If you don’t speak up then where does it stop? Do you play by the rules or do you just keep looking the other way? Do you just throw up your hands and say, ‘oh, the hell with the rules,’ or dig in and say yes, there are shades of gray, but some things are still black-and-white,” Moore says. “At this point in my life, I’m going to stand on what’s right.”

With no system of external oversight for Liberty House, Moore says she hopes perhaps someone from the state will want to take a closer look at things.

“I would love to see the same thing that happened with Serenity Place happen at Liberty House – you know, everyone with sneakers on, out of the pool,” Moore says. “I’d like to see them start from scratch, get all new people on the board – especially more veterans – and keep the Liberty House moving in the right direction.. People will always want to support our veterans. People will always want to give. But it’s time to clean house and start again with people who have their eye on the mission.”

Below is a copy of a letter sent to those who have donated to the Liberty House three months after the organization was informed that donor data had been compromised. Letter provided by Denise Moore.

About Carol Robidoux 6506 Articles
Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!