Kenyon: Red flags escaped notice before financial allegations at Listen

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 05-22-2023 7:25 PM

For almost a decade, Kyle Fisher was able to keep his money troubles hidden in plain sight.

By 2014 — two years before he was selected to head Listen Community Services — Fisher had amassed $40,000 in credit card debt. His car was repossessed. He owed the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid income taxes in 2012 — the same year he reported $12,809 in gambling winnings.

Fisher made the financial disclosures when he filed for bankruptcy in May 2014. The 50-page document was public record at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manchester. For a small fee, the information could have easily been found online at Pacer, a national index of federal court cases.

But no one, including me, delved into Fisher’s past until it was too late.

On May 11, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Hampshire announced that Fisher, 42, had been indicted and charged with embezzling more than $230,000 from Listen during a 19-month period between February 2021 and September 2022.

Fisher, who served as Listen’s executive director for six years, gambled away a “large amount of the stolen funds” at the MGM Casino in Springfield, Mass., according to federal prosecutors.

“As shocking as it is, it’s a familiar story,” Phil Sherwood, communications director for the nonprofit Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, said in an interview after reading about Fisher’s indictment. “People resort to desperate means to fund their addictions.”

About 2% of Americans, roughly 6.6 million people, struggle with gambling addiction, according to the nonprofit National Council on Problem Gambling.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Kenyon: As Claremont woman stepped up for nieces, NH quickly stepped away
New Hampshire's population is increasing, especially in rural areas
Upper Valley has its share of day-drinking destinations
More than 4 million skiers braved Vermont’s weird, wet winter
Lightning strike damages buildings in Canaan
Upper Valley Independence Day celebrations

Fisher, who faces four counts of wire fraud, is scheduled to appear in federal court in Concord on Wednesday. He’s yet to enter a plea. Wire fraud carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

Fisher now lives in Holly Springs, N.C., 20 miles outside the Raleigh-Durham area, prosecutors say. I couldn’t reach him for comment last week.

At risk of playing Monday morning quarterback, I think it’s fair to ask how Fisher, with his shaky financial history, ended up leading Listen, a nonprofit with a multi-million dollar annual operating budget.

Fisher moved to the Upper Valley from the Midwest in early 2013. His girlfriend, whom he later married, had taken a position in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s finance department.

Fisher arrived without a job, but the move represented a fresh start.

A previous marriage had ended in divorce and he owed nearly $9,000 in child support payments, according to his bankruptcy petition.

In 2012, the year prior to landing in the Upper Valley, Fisher ran afoul of the law in Michigan for financial wrongdoing — albeit on a much smaller scale than the Listen allegations. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of embezzling less than $200, Michigan court records showed.

That case, too, escaped public scrutiny until after his federal indictment 10 days ago.

Before moving to the Upper Valley, Fisher earned a MBA from the prestigious Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. (His bankruptcy filing listed $67,585 in student loan obligations.)

His employment experience included an accounting and budget analysis position at the University of Michigan. He also worked as an inventory control specialist at Costco Wholesale, the national membership-only warehouse retailer, in Oak Brook, Ill.

In 2012, he reported an income of $47,000 on top of his gambling winnings.

Lacking attractive job prospects in the Upper Valley, Fisher started volunteering at Listen in 2013. Shortly thereafter, he was named Listen’s administrative director, which paid $37,000 a year. He managed the human resources, facilities and IT departments.

At DHMC, Fisher’s partner heard about a two-bedroom apartment available for rent in Cornish. In October 2013, the couple and the first of their two children moved into the apartment that Linda and Steven Fellows rented in their large house for only $350 a month.

“They were an all-American family,” Linda Fellows told me when I stopped by the house on Jackson Road last week. “They seemed so in love.”

Three years later, with their rent paid in full, the Fisher and his family moved to Grantham. “We had no issues at all with them,” Linda Fellows said.

On Aug. 28, 2014, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge granted Fisher’s request for debt relief. Under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, however, not all of his debts were forgiven, his Hanover attorney, Michael Fisher (no relation), told me in an interview. He was still responsible for debts such as child support payments, student loans and back taxes.

<center><p>&#9830;</p></center>

Listen, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022, is vital to the Upper Valley’s social services safety net.

With more than $2 million a year in sales, Listen’s thrift stores in Lebanon, Canaan and White River Junction produce a steady revenue stream. Every year, Listen provides clothing, food and housing assistance to thousands of people in need.

The Bourne Center, named after heralded former executive director Merilynn Bourne, features a large kitchen and dining hall that serves 100 meals a night in White River Junction.

After 20 years at Listen, Bourne, who was approaching 70, announced plans to retire in the summer of 2016. The board began looking for a successor.

“It was a national search,” said state Rep. Laurel Stavis, of Lebanon, who was a board member at the time.

The opening attracted roughly 40 applicants.

The seven-member board, which is made up of volunteers, hired a human resources specialist to sift through applications and conduct background checks.

The consulting firm identified a half-dozen candidates that it viewed worthy of consideration.

Fisher, who was seen inside the organization as Bourne’s top lieutenant, made the cut. “It didn’t take us long to realize the best candidate was already working at Listen,” David Brooker, the board chairman at the time, said in an interview last week.

I wanted to talk with Bourne about Fisher and left voicemail messages on her cellphone last week. I didn’t hear back.

Stavis and Brooker told me they were unaware of Fisher’s bankruptcy case or criminal record in Michigan until Valley News staff writer John Lippman reported the news in a story after the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the indictment.

“I don’t remember anything from the search process that would be considered a red flag,” said Brooker, a retired health care executive who spent 25 years on Listen’s board before stepping down in 2022.

<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull>

Fisher took the helm just before Listen embarked on a major expansion. In 2017, it purchased the former Bridgman’s furniture store on Miracle Mile in Lebanon.

After paying $2 million for the building, Listen spent an additional $750,000 on renovations on what would become its flagship thrift store.

Tim Fariel, who was hired as Listen’s facilities manager in 2014, worked closely with Fisher on the project.

“I knew Kyle had some stresses,” said Fariel, who left Listen in 2018.

Fariel chalked up it mostly to Fisher having to deal with the daily challenges of overseeing an organization with 80 employees and the responsibility that came with caring for people who had fallen on hard times in two dozen New Hampshire and Vermont communities.

As executive director, Fisher was also called upon to spread the word about Listen’s good deeds at government meetings and civic organizations’ gatherings.

With his short hair and glasses, Fisher was “almost Boy Scoutish-looking,” Fariel said.

But there was one part of the job that Fisher dreaded. “He hated having to speak in public,” Fariel said. “It stressed him out more than anything.”

Fisher “learned a lot working with Merilynn” before taking over for her, Brooker said. Still, the board saw room for improvement.

In 2018, a Listen donor picked up the tab for Dick Green, a longtime Upper Valley business executive, to help Fisher hone his management skills, such as learning to delegate.

“It was Management 101,” Green said in an interview. “He was relatively new (to leading) a rapidly growing organization.”

Green worked with Fisher, who had “very strong IT and finance skills,” on strategic planning and improving Listen’s fundraising capabilities.

As he became more comfortable in the job, Fisher raised his profile in nonprofit circles. In 2020, he was named to Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital’s board of trustees. He joined the community advisory board at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine.

The board rewarded Fisher for his efforts, bumping his annual compensation from $96,882 in 2020 to $115,503 in 2021 (a 19% increase), according to Listen’s most recent federal tax returns available online.

“He was self-effacing and never came across as insincere or dishonest,” Brooker said. “He didn’t do anything to make (board members) think we were being manipulated in any way. I always regarded him as upfront and real.”

At a board meeting in late August, however, the board was alerted to financial irregularities occurring under Fisher’s watch.

Fisher was placed on administrative leave in early September. Green, who joined the board in 2021, agreed to step in as interim executive director.

Fisher resigned in October. The board is looking into why the search firm, which Listen hasn’t named, failed in 2016 to “pick up” Fisher’s bankruptcy case or criminal record, Green told me.

Rob Roy McGregor, who spent 19 years as CEO of the Southern District YMCA in Exeter, N.H., came aboard as the new executive director in March.

Listen has filed a claim with its insurance company, and early indications are the losses will be covered, Green said.

During his years at Listen, Fisher “built up a lot of trust,” said Green, the board’s treasurer. He had access to all of Listen’s accounting systems.

“He wrote unauthorized checks to himself and transferred funds from (Listen’s) PayPal account to his own personal bank account,” The U.S. Attorney’s Office stated in its news release. “Fisher created fake invoices and receipts and altered (Listen’s) accounting records.”

The drive from Lebanon to One MGM Way in Springfield, Mass., can be made in about two hours.

Billed as the first full-fledged casino in Massachusetts, MGM Springfield opened in August 2018. The $960 million “resort,” open 24 hours a day, offers more than 1,500 slot machines, a poker room and game tables.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office makes it sound as though Fisher was a frequent visitor, which was news to people like Fariel, a former colleague at Listen.

“Apparently,” Fariel said, “he lived in two different worlds.”

The 24/7 National Problem Gambling Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-GAMBLER or texting 800GAM.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

]]>