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Former head of White Mountain trail nonprofit accused of financial fraud

A hiker in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. (file photo)
Todd Bookman/NHPR
A hiker in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. (file photo)

The criminal trial of a former nonprofit executive director accused of stealing from the organization she oversaw is set for this summer.

Federal authorities allege that Melanie Luce, who led the Campton-based White Mountains Trail Collective, illegally spent more than $30,000 on the group’s credit card and Paypal account on personal expenses on multiple occasions in 2021. Luce is also accused of fabricating a document purporting to show she had successfully obtained $475,000 in grants on behalf of the nonprofit, which earned her a $20,000 performance bonus.

She’s also accused of submitting false records to obtain a COVID-19 federal loan on behalf of her website development company, Prema Web Design. According to a federal grand jury indictment from December, Luce “knowingly and willfully executed and attempted to execute a scheme and artifice to defraud” a local bank when she more than doubled her actual revenue for the company as part of the loan application.

Luce’s trial, originally scheduled for March, has been postponed until July.

In a statement, Richard Guerrero, Luce’s lawyer, said his client has pleaded not guilty, and that “we are addressing the allegations against her through the court process and Ms. Luce is reserving her comments until the time comes for her to speak in court.”

This isn’t the first time Luce, 46, has been accused of embezzling from her employers.

In 2012, Luce pleaded guilty to four counts of felony theft and misuse of a credit card after stealing approximately $185,000 from a medical practice in Plymouth, where she worked as an office manager. Luce was sentenced to serve 12 months in the Grafton County House of Corrections, and ordered to pay restitution.

It isn’t clear if the White Mountains Trail Collective’s board of directors was aware of her previous conviction for embezzlement, or what steps may have been taken to monitor her use of the group’s finances.

The former head of the board, Matthew Smith, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Founded as a nonprofit in 2019, the White Mountains Trail Collective worked with partner agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and Appalachian Mountain Club, as well as smaller trail conservation organizations, to raise money to restore heavily used trails. That included significant involvement in a two-year project to improve the Crawford Path on Mount Washington, a highly trafficked trail that crosses delicate alpine ecosystems.

“We support trail maintainers; we support sustainable trail systems,” Luce said in 2021 during an interview with NH Gives, a fundraising campaign. “We need funding, for sure.”

The nonprofit helped to fill a yawning gap in deferred trail maintenance in the White Mountains, and provided individuals and foundations with a way to support trail work on federally managed properties.

In addition to the work on Crawford Path, records show the group also helped to coordinate trail maintenance projects at popular hiking destinations in New Hampshire including Glen Ellis Falls and Cathedral Ledge.

A copy of a 2022 audit obtained by NHPR through a public records request with the New Hampshire Department of Justice shows Luce allegedly fabricated bank statements by adding digits to make it appear the nonprofit had more money on hand than it actually did — by as much as $300,000 — as it sought short-term loans.

Credit card statements allegedly show Luce also used

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the nonprofit’s credit card to pay for personal expenses, including automobile repairs and veterinary bills.

It isn’t clear when Luce was fired or left her position at the nonprofit. Records show the White Mountains Trail Collective formally dissolved in 2023.

A trial in federal court in Concord, originally scheduled for mid-March, is now set to begin in July.

According to court paperwork, Luce now resides in Colorado.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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