Six New Hampshire residents, including three from Keene and one from Alstead, were arrested Tuesday and charged with running an unlicensed scheme to sell virtual currency.
Keene residents Aria DiMezzo, Ian Freeman and a man whose legal name is Nobody (formerly Richard Paul) were among those arrested in the federal probe, as was Alstead resident Colleen Fordham. All four face multiple charges.
DiMezzo, Freeman and Nobody are locally known activists and have all run for public office.
Federal prosecutors say the six individuals — who also include Derry residents Andrew and Renee Spinella — operated a business that since 2016 has enabled customers to exchange more than $10 million in fiat, or government-issued, currency for virtual currency.
In a March 15 indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for New Hampshire, prosecutors allege that the defendants “knowingly operated” their currency-exchange business in violation of federal anti-money-laundering laws and regulations. They say the six individuals made “substantial efforts to evade detection” by selling virtual currency via bank accounts established under either their own names or the names of purported religious entities.
Prosecutors also allege that several defendants told banks their accounts were used to receive church donations and also instructed customers to conceal from banks that the customers were purchasing virtual currency.
All six defendants are charged with participating in a conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money-transmitting business.
In addition, Freeman, Fordham, Nobody, Andrew Spinella and Renee Spinella are charged with wire fraud and participating in a conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Freeman and DiMezzo are charged with operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business, though prosecutors say DiMezzo may have gotten involved as late as June 2020. And Freeman is charged with money laundering and operating a continuing financial crimes enterprise.
Acting U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire John J. Farley announced the charges in a news release Tuesday afternoon.
All six defendants were taken into federal custody Tuesday morning, FBI spokeswoman Kristen Setera told The Sentinel in an email. The agency conducted several searches in Keene early Tuesday, including at 73-75 Leverett St. and at two properties on Route 101.
Those properties are linked to the libertarian-leaning activist group known locally as Free Keene — after a website of the same name — which has ties to several of those arrested.
The Route 101 searches were at 661 Marlboro Road and 659 Marlboro Road, which is owned by Shire Free Church Holdings LLC, according to property records. A business called Bitcoin Embassy N.H. is located at 661 Marlboro Road.
Shire Free Church Holdings LLC also owned the Leverett Street house until ownership was transferred in 2014 to Shire Free Church Monadnock.
The N.H. Secretary of State’s Office lists Freeman as chairman of Shire Free Church Monadnock’s board of directors, and its main address is listed as 73-75 Leverett St. Freeman was living at the house as of 2016, according to a search warrant affidavit in a separate federal investigation that year.
The FBI also conducted an operation at My Campus Convenience on Tuesday morning. An employee at the 152 Winchester St. store, who declined to share their name, said agents removed a Bitcoin ATM. Setera, the FBI spokeswoman, declined to comment on the details of that operation.
Freeman, who co-hosts the radio show Free Talk Live, told The Sentinel in 2017 that his cryptocurrency business had a multi-thousand-dollar budget that flowed through the Shire Free Church, which he described as an “interfaith” group. (That organization, which Freeman has said he founded in 2010, made headlines in the past for a dispute with Keene officials over its failed attempts to claim tax-exempt status for the 73-75 Leverett St. property, on the grounds that it is a parish or parsonage.The city’s Board of Assessors denied that request at least twice.)
Freeman told The Sentinel in 2017 that while money has “always been controlled by some banking organization or government,” digital currency like Bitcoin “completely decentralizes control over money down into the hands of the average person.”
He said customers used a “bitcoin vending machine” at Route 101 Local Goods — a business at 661 Marlboro Road that has since closed — to convert dollars into the digital currency. At the time, Freeman estimated the machine netted about $1,200 each month in exchange fees, which he said funded the operation.
However, prosecutors say in the March 15 indictment that the currency-exchange business failed to comply with federal registration requirements for money-transmitting businesses. The operation was conducted online and via ATMs in New Hampshire, they say.
In the indictment, prosecutors allege that the six defendants intended to sell virtual currency via bank accounts registered under their own names or those of “purported religious entities” like the Shire Free Church, the Crypto Church of NH, the Church of the Invisible Hand and the Reformed Satanic Church.
Prosecutors also allege that Freeman committed a series of federal violations from which he received more than $5 million in gross receipts between September 2018 and August 2020. He is charged with having knowingly conducted a continuing financial crimes enterprise, which carries a penalty of imprisonment for no less than 10 years.
Freeman, Fordham, Andrew Spinella, Renee Spinella and Nobody also face charges alleging they made, and got others to make, “material misrepresentations” to banks that prosecutors say were meant to trick the institutions into allowing the defendants to open and operate their accounts. Prosecutors say Freeman, Fordham and Renee Spinella instructed customers to describe deposits into their accounts as “church donations” or say they were for the purpose of buying rare coins, to avoid detection by banks.
Prosecutors say Freeman committed money laundering by conducting a financial transaction in August 2020 with proceeds he knew were from unlawful activity involving the distribution of controlled substances. The indictment states that Freeman exchanged $19,900 for approximately 1.54 Bitcoin.
Freeman, 40, has run for public office numerous times, including an unsuccessful bid last year to represent Keene in the N.H. House of Representatives.
DiMezzo, 34, drew attention last year for her self-described “anarchist” campaign for Cheshire County sheriff, after winning an uncontested Republican primary. (She lost the general election to incumbent Sheriff Eli Rivera.)
Nobody, the former Richard Paul, 52, ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign during the most recent election cycle.
Neither Freeman, DiMezzo, Fordham nor Nobody could be reached Tuesday for comment on the charges against them.
Freeman pleaded not guilty to all charges in a hearing before a U.S. magistrate judge Tuesday afternoon, according to his Chichester-based attorney, Mark Sisti. Sisti said Freeman denies any wrongdoing and is “very much looking forward to getting a jury trial” in the case.
Freeman is in custody at Merrimack County Jail, Sisti said. A detention hearing is scheduled for Friday.
The five other defendants also pleaded not guilty before a U.S. magistrate judge Tuesday afternoon, according to court records.
Exactly one year after police arrested a Black couple in a Keene State College dorm, in an incident in which the pair say officers used excessive force, a group of about 60 students and staff gathered on campus Tuesday afternoon to show their support for the couple and demand more action from school leaders.
Macie Flammia, a junior at the college who helped organize the protest outside the Young Student Center, said the goal of the event was to demonstrate to the two former students, Ndeye Badiane and her fiancé, Tyler Clavelle, that their peers haven’t forgotten about them.
“I think showing them that people really do care, and they’re not 1,000 percent alone, is really important right now,” Flammia said.
Badiane, who goes by Khady, and Clavelle were arrested March 16, 2020, after college staff came to Badiane’s dorm room for a reported marijuana violation. An argument then ensued over whether Clavelle — who uses male pronouns but identifies as nonbinary — could use the women’s restroom, prompting a campus safety officer to call Keene police, who ultimately arrested Badiane and Clavelle.
The couple, who have since moved to Louisiana, say officers used excessive force during the incident, which Badiane captured in part on a cellphone video and posted about on social media. The video depicts part of the interaction between officers and the couple, during which police took Badiane to the ground, and she said her shoulder was dislocated. Keene Police Chief Steven Russo told The Sentinel last month that the department denies that officers used excessive force.
Police charged Clavelle, 23, with trespassing and resisting arrest and Badiane, then 21, with resisting arrest and simple assault for allegedly kicking an officer, which she denies, and knocking into another, which she said was an attempt to stop him from using what she thought was excessive force on her fiancé. They accepted a plea deal last month, with each pleading guilty to a violation-level offense of resisting arrest because, they said, they didn’t want the charges to jeopardize the immigration status of Badiane, who holds a green card, the N.H. Union Leader reported.
As a result, they have lost out on job opportunities and had to raise money for legal fees, according to Emma Provencher, a Keene State senior who also helped organize Tuesday’s protest. Provencher, Flammia and Emma Connelly, a senior who also led the event, have started an Instagram account, @ksc — studentsforchange, to advocate and raise money for Badiane and Clavelle.
“Right now, it’s all about fighting for them and giving them the means to fight for themselves — raising money, and honestly just showing them that people care about them and people know that this is a horrible thing that happened to them, and we’re not going to let it slide,” Connelly said.
Eventually, Flammia said they want to organize a fundraiser for Badiane and Clavelle, though events like that are more difficult due to COVID-19 protocols. In the meantime, she said, protesters hope Keene State will provide the couple with some sort of monetary reparations or at least an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
“The least we’re asking is for them to admit that something wrong happened,” she said. “In [college President] Melinda Treadwell’s response, she didn’t really actually say anything. She didn’t really condemn anything that happened. ... And so we’re hoping to just get some kind of acknowledgement, someone in a powerful position to acknowledge that this happened because of racism and transphobia.”
In a message to students, staff and alumni last month, Treadwell said that as a result of the incident, Keene State has implemented de-escalation training and planned to update the school’s campus safety/Keene City Police crisis management protocols and expectations. College spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said Tuesday that the school’s response to the incident last year is ongoing.
“Ongoing work is being done to support the involved students, to establish new protocols and implement training, and to identify more measures that can be taken as a college community to advance our work in creating a student-centered, welcoming community,” Ricaurte said in a written statement.
She added that Keene State has posted information about the college’s response, including a frequently asked questions section, on the school’s website. Ricaurte also said the college is committed to continuing to listen to students like those who gathered for Tuesday’s protest.
“The college provided a dedicated place on campus for students to share their voices today,” she said. “Our college leadership, and community of faculty and staff, stand with the protesters in solidarity and share their commitment to action.”
The protest’s organizers, though, say Keene State hasn’t done enough in response to Badiane and Clavelle’s arrests, and that students will continue to demand more action from the school.
“Don’t just let it die down after today,” Provencher told the group. “They need to know that we are continuously going to be calling this out. We’re not letting the school get away with this. Khady and Tyler aren’t able to be here, so they are really depending on us to keep this going.”
The Monadnock Regional School District could eliminate up to eight full-time positions to meet the $32.5 million budget voters approved last week, which marks an $855,000 reduction to the district’s original budget proposal.
Superintendent Lisa Witte laid out the potential reductions during Tuesday night’s school board meeting. But between now and the next meeting April 6, when board members will vote on nominations for staff positions for next year, Witte said district administrators will continue to work to identify potential cuts and cost savings to avoid axing as many jobs.
Those savings include roughly $115,000 in staff health insurance costs, caused by a rate increase lower than the budget planned for, which the district learned of Tuesday afternoon, Business Administrator Janel Morin said during the meeting. Additionally, the board on Tuesday voted unanimously to allow the district to offer early retirement incentives for more experienced staff members, which could also lead to some savings, Witte said.
“The question becomes how much savings that could then translate into positions,” Witte said of the potential early retirements. “It could be one; it could be two. Again, until we see uptake, I can’t really predict. But there is the potential to free up additional funds moving forward, so that we may be able to mitigate some of the impact on the [full-time positions] that are on that proposal.”
Monadnock’s budget committee cut 2.6 percent from the district’s original proposal at the group’s meeting in January. At that meeting, and the district’s annual deliberative session, several budget committee members argued the cut would help the district avoid running a large surplus, as it has for the past four years. Witte has maintained from the beginning that the reduction would result in staff and programming cuts.
Witte said Tuesday that district administrators have already spoken with people whose jobs may be affected by the budget cuts. But she also noted that some of the positions that currently are slated to be cut are open right now, as the district hasn’t been able to find enough candidates to fill all job openings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we talk positions, we talk positions,” Witte said. “Ultimately, they may impact individuals, but not necessarily.”
Witte said Monadnock administrators will continue to look at potential budget reductions and present the board with a revised list of recommended cuts — taking into account factors like the lower health-care costs and early retirements — ahead of the April 6 meeting.
Weighing full reopening
At that meeting, the board also will vote on whether to fully reopen schools in the district beginning May 3. Board members discussed but did not make any decisions on the topic at Tuesday’s meeting, where Witte presented a list of considerations schools would need to weigh before switching from the district’s current hybrid model.
Throughout the school year, students in the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — have attended school in person two days per week and done remote learning the rest of the week. Families also have the option for their children to learn fully remotely.
That option will continue through the end of the school year, Witte said, and if the board votes to move away from the hybrid model, administrators recommend bringing students back to classes four days a week and keeping Friday as a remote-learning day.
In the meantime, Witte said physical space within the schools is the biggest challenge to bringing students back for more in-person classes. In her presentation to the board, she said many classrooms would be able to accommodate 3 feet of physical distancing between students, which is what the state health department currently recommends, but only some classrooms would be able to allow for the 6 feet of distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
District employees, parents and students who spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting were split on when schools should fully reopen. Erin Kelley of Swanzey, who is a district parent and a teacher at the high school, said she doesn’t want to move away from the hybrid model until a majority of school staff is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Every employee deserves to feel safe in their workplace. Every parent or guardian deserves to be confident that their school, that their children, are safe,” Kelley said. “And COVID-19 is a clear danger. And the closer we are to other people, the greater the risk of contracting the virus.
“... Without question, a full return to a traditional format is what we all deeply desire,” she continued. “But I really cannot support such a move until it is safe.”
Meanwhile, Dan Coffman of Swanzey, a Monadnock parent who also serves on the district’s budget committee, said he believes students and staff can return safely now.
“We’ve had a year of these kids not being in a full school environment, both educationally and socially, from a sports and extracurricular perspective, etc.,” he said. “We’ve got to get these kids in school.”
The next Monadnock school board meeting, which will be held via Zoom, is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on April 6.
New Hampshire schools are slated to get over $350 million in the latest federal COVID relief package, a significant boost to what has already been a major increase in federal education aid during the pandemic.
The $350.5 million is more than twice what the federal government promised to K-12 schools in New Hampshire in December’s COVID relief package and roughly eight times what schools here were allocated in the CARES Act a year ago.
The new package also sets aside $6.6 million for private schools and $162 for colleges and universities.
School funds from the Biden administration’s “American Rescue Plan” can go to a variety of COVID-related expenses over the next two and a half years, from air ventilation systems to addressing learning loss that occurred during the pandemic.
The issue of federal relief for schools has been at the center of the reopening debate in New Hampshire. Gov. Chris Sununu has cited the availability of federal funds and low transmission rates of COVID-19 in school buildings in his push for districts to reopen more fully.
According to the N.H. Department of Education, schools have drawn down about 25 percent from the first round of federal COVID relief (ESSER I) and budgeted for nearly all of it. That money must be spent by September 2021, but some schools say it’s taking them longer to seek reimbursement for their approved expenses, because materials like Chromebooks and air ventilation units are delayed due to high demand.
The second round of federal COVID relief (ESSER II) — roughly $150 million — did not arrive until this week, state officials say, and will be available to schools soon.
Lisa Witte, superintendent of the Monadnock Regional School District, says school districts are eager to begin budgeting and applying for their portion of the $150 million in federal COVID relief, but they’re still awaiting guidance for how to access the money.
“We’re not refusing to use [the money],” she says. “We can’t start spending what we haven’t applied for.”
Current and former city leaders are among those remembering former Keene Mayor Philip “Dale” Pregent, who died Tuesday at the age of 84.
Pregent passed away at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. In addition to serving as mayor, the nearly life-long Keene resident spent eight years as a city councilor and worked as an antiques dealer.
Mayor George Hansel remembers Pregent as “a real cheerleader for the city” and someone who made a sincere effort to get to know every detail about the city he was serving.
“He was a great friend of mine and of the city, and we’ve suffered a real loss here,” Hansel said Tuesday evening. “My heart goes out to Dale’s family and all of his friends.”
Pregent was first elected mayor in 2007, after spending six years as a city councilor. He was elected to a second term in 2009 and served as mayor until 2011, when he decided to return to the council, where he served until 2013.
Former councilor Jim Duffy, who served with Pregent when they were both councilors and when Pregent was mayor, described him as a caring and compassionate person who made a point to recognize the work and efforts of people in the community, from crossing guards to schoolchildren.
Duffy said it was working with Pregent to halt a proposed baseball complex downtown that first got him interested in city affairs. And it was Pregent’s encouragement that helped convince him to run for a spot on the council.
“We worked together doing research and writing letters to the editor,” Duffy said. “Working with him gave me a taste for civic action and interest. A few years after that, he called me and asked me to run for City Council.”
During their time serving the city together, Duffy said he regularly saw Pregent making the effort to engage community members about things that were happening in Keene. He said Pregent was always eager to learn everything he could about the city and what made it tick.
Duffy counts Pregent’s efforts to “democratize” the city’s boards and committees as one of his greatest accomplishments. He said Pregent was good at identifying new, intelligent and talented people to serve on those bodies and “move the city forward.”
Learning of Pregent’s passing came as a shock, Duffy said, and he offered his condolences to his family.
“He was a humble, strong man, a man of faith,” Duffy said, “and … he really went out of his way to be kind to everybody.”