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Peterborough scammed out of $2.3M; funds meant for ConVal, contractors
  • Updated

PETERBOROUGH — The town has lost $2.3 million through a cyber scam, Peterborough officials announced Monday.

“We do not believe that the funds can be recovered by reversing the transactions, and we do not yet know if these losses will be covered by insurance,” selectboard Chairman Tyler Ward and Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said in a news release Monday afternoon.

In July, town officials discovered that a payment meant for the ConVal Regional School District had not reached its destination. Then this month, staff learned that two payments to contractors working on the town’s Main Street bridge project had also never been received.

After learning of the first theft on July 26, in which $1.2 million was to be transferred to ConVal as part of a monthly payment, the town was able to quickly determine it had been the victim of an email fraud scheme, the release says.

Town staff immediately put a stop-payment order on the transfer, though the funds had already left Peterborough’s People’s United Bank account, and notified the U.S. Secret Service Cyber Fraud Task Force, according to Ward and MacStay.

The release states that ATOM Group, the town’s cyber security consultant, worked with the town’s IT staff to identify email exchanges between employees in the Peterborough finance office and the suspected scammers.

“The ATOM Group and the Town’s IT Staff were able to identify email exchanges between Finance Department staff and thieves posing as ConVal School District staff using forged documents and email accounts but were not immediately able to identify who had perpetrated the fraud,” the release says.

In a separate news release Monday, ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said the district’s IT staff has reviewed its email servers and anti-virus logs, and no signs of malicious activity were detected.

“We are working alongside the Town of Peterborough, the U.S. Secret Service, legal counsel and our insurer to support this investigation however we can and develop a better understanding of how this theft occurred, as well as to recoup the lost funding however possible,” she said in the release.

On Aug. 18, while the investigation into the first theft was still ongoing, the town learned of two payments to Beck and Bellucci, the contractors working on the Main Street bridge project, that hadn’t arrived, according to Ward and MacStay.

Staff determined that these payments were likely intercepted by scammers like the ConVal payment, and the Secret Service as well as the town’s consultants were immediately notified.

“Investigations into these forged email exchanges showed that they originated overseas,” according to the release. “These criminals were very sophisticated and took advantage of the transparent nature of public sector work to identify the most valuable transactions and focus their actions on diverting those transfers.”

While the release says no town employees are believed to be criminally involved in the scam, those who were directly targeted in the fraud have been placed on leave pending the conclusion of the Secret Service task force’s investigation.

The town — which has a budget of $15.8 million for Fiscal Year 2022 — is now waiting to hear from NH Primex, its property and liability coverage provider, to see whether any part of its losses will be covered. Peterborough is exploring other options for correcting the situation, and has reached out to both the governor’s office as well as area state representatives, the release says.

The town has halted all ACH (Automated Clearing House) transfers, and its policies and procedures for handling electronic money transfers are under review.

“We will update the community as more information becomes available,” the release says.

MacStay could not be reached for comment early Tuesday.

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Keene Planning Board OKs new Hundred Nights shelter on Water Street
  • Updated

A year after Hundred Nights Inc. proposed moving its homeless shelter and housing resource center to Water Street, the Keene nonprofit has cleared a major hurdle that could allow it to start building a new facility early next year, ending its long search for a larger home.

Keene’s planning board voted unanimously to approve the shelter relocation project in a meeting Monday night at City Hall — the board’s first in-person session since February 2020 — that was also broadcast online.

Hundred Nights has proposed building a new 48-bed shelter and resource center at 122-124 Water St., formerly Tom’s Auto Service, which would include private rooms for families and offer public restrooms and showers.

Representing Hundred Nights before the planning board, Jim Phippard of Brickstone Land Use Consultants in Keene said the new facility — a three-story building with the resource center on the first floor — would accommodate the same number of guests that the organization hosts now. Hundred Nights offers 24 beds at its 17 Lamson St. shelter and provided 24 more at local churches two winters ago, Phippard noted, though it adopted other cold-weather accommodations during the pandemic.

“This is not an expansion of Hundred Nights in Keene,” he said. “This is a consolidation into this one location.”

The proposal, which the city’s Historic District Commission approved last month, drew limited discussion Monday. Board members focused largely on design elements of the 15,000-square-foot structure, such as building materials and new lighting on the property, before approving the plans.

With no further city approval needed for the shelter relocation, Hundred Nights Executive Director Mindy Cambiar said the board’s decision means her organization can concentrate fully on day-to-day operations.

“Instead of focusing on how we’re going to provide 48 beds a night, we can focus on actually providing the services that are needed,” she told The Sentinel.

No Keene residents commented on the project in a public-hearing phase of the meeting, though Senior Planner Tara Kessler said the city had received a number of letters backing it.

Monday’s meeting came just over a year after Hundred Nights proposed moving its shelter and resource center to Water Street. Cambiar has said the organization needs more space to help a growing number of unhoused families and to keep its services — such as the resource center, currently at the former St. James Thrift Shop on Lamson Street — in one location.

Even before introducing that plan, Hundred Nights had been trying to replace its Lamson Street shelter with a larger facility for several years. Keene’s zoning board of adjustment denied the organization’s request for a land-use variance on a different property in 2017, and another planned move the next year fell through when the proposed site was sold before the zoning board could hear Hundred Nights’ application.

The nonprofit received a variance for the Water Street site in September 2020, taking a substantial step toward relocation. (Hundred Nights needed a variance because the property is currently in Keene’s business growth and reuse zoning district, which does not otherwise permit congregate-living facilities.)

Progress on the proposed shelter was delayed, however, after property owners near the Water Street site filed a lawsuit to block Hundred Nights’ move, claiming they hadn’t been notified of the zoning board’s September 2020 hearing and that the proposal didn’t meet the board’s criteria for a variance. A Cheshire County Superior Court judge rejected that lawsuit in March, finding that the zoning board’s decision was “neither unlawful nor unreasonable.”

Hundred Nights began working with an architect and design team to finalize its Water Street plans after the ruling, Cambiar told The Sentinel in the spring.

The organization has also launched an effort to finance the new facility, which is estimated to cost $5.5 million, according to Sara Barrett, a development professional working with Hundred Nights.

That includes submitting a request for $500,000 in federal funding that would go toward purchasing the Water Street property, Barrett said, as well as attracting investment from local businesses using $750,000 in tax credits that Hundred Nights was awarded earlier this year. The organization plans to introduce a capital campaign, as well.

Following planning board approval Monday, construction on the new shelter could begin as soon as next spring, according to Barrett.

“There are a lot of milestones we still need to meet, but we know the plan, we have a timeline,” she said.

Western US bakes and East is deluged in a summer of extremes

As the Western U.S. bakes and burns under an unprecedented heat dome, Henri leaves a deluged East Coast staggering after a summer of deadly floods and record-setting tropical storms. Climate scientists say one is due to the other, and both come against the backdrop of a warming planet.

The high pressure that got stuck across the West causing drought and fire actually created the conditions for low-pressure-driven storms in the East. So while July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, it was the sixth-wettest in U.S. records going back 127 years, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist at the Energy Weather Group, said heat in both the Pacific and the Atlantic has helped strengthen large high-pressure systems. In the West, this has added to the drought and wildfires; in the East, it has steered tropical systems up the coast and kept the region warm and moist. In between has been a low-pressure trough that has kept the rain falling across the central and eastern U.S.

Abnormally warm water in the Atlantic has been providing extra moisture to the storms, said Paul Pastelok, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster AccuWeather Inc.

At least 21 people died in flooding in Tennessee and about 40 more are missing, according to Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency representative Grey Collier. “Many of the homes have been removed from their foundations,” Collier said by telephone. Record rains dropped more than 17 inches in McEwen, along with more than 10 inches across a wide section of the state.

A separate system, Tropical Storm Fred, last week dumped more than a foot of rain on North Carolina, where 98 people had to be rescued, according to Gov. Roy Cooper. At least four have died, according to news reports.

The East Coast’s summer has felt like a list of uninvited guests — Tropical Storms Claudette, Danny, Fred and Henri, as well as Hurricane Elsa. Henri is just the latest in a grim parade of extreme weather events worldwide as climate change takes hold. Massive wildfires have blackened not only huge swaths of California, but also Greece, Algeria and Siberia, sending smoke over the North Pole for the first time on record.

Earlier this month, Sicily appears to have broken continental Europe’s heat record: 119.8 Fahrenheit. The U.K. Met Office issued its first-ever extreme heat warning.

And as wildfires hit eastern Siberia, western and central Russia were cold.

Meanwhile, floods have plagued northern Europe, killing scores in Germany and Belgium and causing billions of dollars of damage. In Germany, July’s rain and flooding were the worst natural disaster since the 1960s.

Back in the U.S., extreme has simply become ordinary. A spate of tornadoes ripped through suburban Philadelphia. Boston had its wettest July on record. The high in Portland, Ore., hit an unthinkable 116 degrees in June.

Through the first six months of 2021, the U.S. has suffered eight disasters costing $1 billion or more that have also killed 331 people, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. The worst disaster was last February’s winter storm that crippled the Texas electric grid and killed at least 172 people and cost $20.4 billion.

Texas grid operators say they expect record-breaking power demands this week from the heat. The corridor from Hartford, Conn., to Boston and the area around New York City have gotten about twice the normal amount of rain in the last 90 days, said Bryan Jackson, a forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. Meanwhile, many areas in the Northeast, such as the central Appalachians stretching into Pennsylvania, are having an average summer.

The warm water off the coast has fueled many of the eight tropical systems named across the Atlantic this year. Henri, for instance, didn’t form off the coast of Africa, as many destructive hurricanes do but was born from a weather front that crossed the Northeast U.S. and got a boost from the warm Atlantic, Pastelok said. Drought has captured more than 95 percent of the land in 11 Western states, including all of California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and Utah, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Rouiller, who’s been a meteorologist for 40 years, says the summer has forced some rethinking among his colleagues.

“This is very abnormal,” he said. “There is also a stronger signal for global warming in the picture. I do believe now more than I have that it is occurring. I just don’t know the magnitude but the change is happening, and it is going to keep on increasing.”

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Under new state law, KSC won't require COVID vaccines this fall
  • Updated

Despite the FDA’s full approval Monday of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, New Hampshire’s public university system, which includes Keene State, will not require vaccination this fall due to a new state law that prohibits such a mandate.

House Bill 220, the so-called “medical freedom in immunization” law, restricts the University System of New Hampshire from making the coronavirus vaccine compulsory, USNH spokeswoman Lisa Thorne said Monday. Thorne told The Sentinel in May, before the new law was passed, that the system would decide whether to mandate a coronavirus vaccine for students and employees “if permanent approval of the vaccines is granted by the FDA.”

For people 16 and over, this happened Monday morning for the Pfizer vaccine, one of three vaccines that had previously received emergency-use authorization from the federal agency. The FDA grants emergency-use authorization for rigorously tested medical treatments during public health emergencies, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Full approval came after the agency analyzed additional safety and efficacy data that Pfizer submitted in May.

But the new state law, which Gov. Chris Sununu signed late last month, makes it illegal to require a COVID-19 vaccine “in order to secure, receive, or access any public facility, any public benefit, or any public service from the state of New Hampshire,” including the state’s public schools.

Along with Keene State, the University System of New Hampshire includes UNH in Durham, Plymouth State University and the Concord-based Granite State College.

Although New Hampshire’s university system will not require a COVID-19 vaccine, Thorne said schools have developed their own individual plans to monitor the pandemic’s effect on their campuses, and mitigate the disease’s spread.

“At this point, our institutions have plans in place for arrival testing and surveillance testing and protocols around masking and other safety processes and are in regular contact with [the state health department] and healthcare partners for best practices, to monitor levels of Covid cases and keep current on trends that could impact safety,” she said in an email.

All Keene State students and employees will be tested for COVID-19 as they arrive on campus this week, regardless of vaccination status, college spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said. First-year students move into their dorms Wednesday, while returning students move back this coming weekend ahead of the first day of classes next Monday. Keene State has roughly 3,000 students and 600 employees.

“Last week, Keene State conducted more than 300 tests, which were all negative,” Ricaurte said in an email. “Weekly surveillance testing is planned for all Keene State community members during the month of September — at this point, there aren’t plans for [weekly] surveillance testing beyond September, but [the frequency of campus-wide testing] will depend on results during the month as well as case rates in the city and region.”

Anyone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus at Keene State will be contacted by the school’s Rapid Response Team, which will provide instructions for isolating, and quarantining for unvaccinated close contacts of people who test positive. Fully vaccinated students and employees who come in close contact with infected people will not need to quarantine, Ricaurte said.

Along with COVID-19 testing, Keene State will begin the new academic year with a mask requirement in buildings on campus, and for outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people, according to the college’s reopening plan. Moving forward, Keene State plans to adjust its COVID-19 protocols for masking, testing and limits on gatherings based on data, including case rates on campus and in Cheshire County, as well as vaccination rates for students and staff.

While Keene State will not mandate a COVID-19 vaccine, the college still highly encourages all students and employees to get the shot, and provide the school’s Wellness Center with proof of vaccination through a confidential online portal. As of Monday, Ricaurte said about 69 percent of faculty and staff and 46 percent of students have provided proof of vaccination.

“But our students haven’t arrived yet, and we expect an increase in documentation from across the college community quickly as the semester starts,” Ricaurte said. “We’re confident that the number of individuals who are vaccinated is actually higher — we continue to encourage both getting vaccinated and uploading vaccination proof to the college.”

At Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, the Monadnock Region’s other residential college, approximately 99 percent of students and 95 percent of full-time faculty and staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19, spokeswoman Kathryn Grosso Gann said Monday.

Franklin Pierce, which is not subject to the new state law because it’s a private school, is requiring students and employees to be inoculated against the coronavirus this year. Franklin Pierce students and employees can get an exemption from the mandate for medical or religious reasons, though unvaccinated people with an approved exemption must undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, Gann said.

Franklin Pierce has about 1,200 students and 235 faculty and staff members at its Rindge campus, and like Keene State is offering full in-person classes this year. Students began moving to campus last Sunday, and classes started last Wednesday. As of Monday, the university reported one COVID-19 infection.

This story has been updated to clarify how often Keene State plans to conduct campus-wide COVID-19 testing this fall, and correct the percentages of students and employees who have provided proof of vaccination. The college provided The Sentinel with incorrect figures prior to publication.