A small nonprofit that teaches Alaska students about the state’s natural resources is suing its former executive director, accusing her of stealing more than $200,000 to pay for vacations, wine club memberships and a home in Arizona.
Alaska Resource Education is accusing Michelle Brunner of directing unauthorized payments to herself for several years, according to a civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court for Alaska on Wednesday. Brunner led the nonprofit for nine years until August 2017.
The complaint was first reported by Alaska Public Media.
With the help of a forensic auditor, the group identified $187,000 in funds it seeks to recover from Brunner and her husband, Todd. It also accuses her of stealing an additional estimated $50,000 in funds that the group has “not yet quantified.”
The complaint says the couple shared a checking account that received some of the stolen funds, and share assets purchased using stolen funds, such as their home in Arizona. It asks the court to secure those assets as a potential source of recovered money.
“Brunner’s misappropriation actions included stealing money from Alaska Resource Education through unauthorized payroll and bonuses, improper credit card charges for personal expenses, and direct bank transfers," the 29-page complaint says.
The couple lives in Arizona, the complaint says.
“We have no comment at this time,” Michelle Brunner said in a text message.
Brunner had access to the organization’s bank accounts and control over financial statements provided to the group’s volunteer board, the lawsuit says.
Alaska Resource Education provides curriculum to thousands of public school students across the state about the state’s mineral, energy, timber and renewable resources. It aims to educate young people about resource-related career opportunities, said Ella Ede, the group’s current executive director.
Much of its support comes from mining and oil companies.
Ede replaced Brunner. In 2018, Ede was reviewing past expenses from an annual fundraiser when she noticed Brunner had allocated personal charges to the fundraiser for wine club memberships, the complaint said.
Ede found other questionable records.
“She went to great lengths to cover up what she was doing,” Ede said by phone Thursday.
Michelle Brunner took steps to cover her tracks, including shredding documents and erasing her emails before she quit, the complaint says. An IT specialist hired by the group recovered some of those emails.
The group found that she had “fabricated” emails to make it appear as if others in the organization had approved payroll advances and bonuses, the complaint says.
Ede, the current director, said the group took swift action after the problems were discovered. She said the group has increased its revenue and also is increasing the number of students it reaches.
“We’ve been coming in well ahead of budget for the last two years, and we have very strong supporters who believe in the importance of our mission,” she said.
The group has reported what they found to the Anchorage Police Department and it has opened a case to investigate, she said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note Alaska Resource Education has notified the Anchorage Police Department.