He sounded so pitch-perfect at the time.

“I am always astounded at how deep the poverty is,” lamented Russell “Rusty” Brace of Camden, onetime king of the do-gooders in midcoast Maine, in a pre-Christmas interview with the PenBay Pilot back in 2012. “Let me tell you, it is a challenge to raise funds.”

Especially when, according to a pending lawsuit filed by United Mid-Coast Charities in Knox County Superior Court, its longtime president spent 13 years secretly siphoning off $3.8 million of those funds into his personal piggy bank.

So much for Brace’s boast, in that same interview, that he raised all that dough “knowing how thoroughly we are satisfied that the assistance is going to the people who need it.”

Brace’s stunning fall from grace began in August when, at age 81, he retired after presiding for 17 years over the all-volunteer United Mid-Coast Charities. Founded 72 years ago, the Camden-based nonprofit long has been the go-to conduit between the Camden area’s well-heeled and dozens of worthy community organizations – a food pantry, a fuel assistance program, a hospice, to name but a few – throughout Knox and Waldo counties.

Taking Brace’s spot atop United Mid-Coast Charities’ 43-member board of directors was Stephen Crane, who’s known Brace for 25 years. Or so he thought.

In an affidavit filed with the court on Friday, Crane told of his meeting with “one of the larger donors” to United Mid-Coast Charities on Sept. 20, four weeks after Brace stepped down. During the conversation, the donor mentioned three large donations he had made recently to the organization.

Problem was, Crane had no documentation whatsoever that the donations had ever been received.

“He (the donor) expressed surprise and showed me three canceled checks made out to UMCC totaling $75,000,” recalled Crane.

Flipping them over, Crane saw that the checks had been initialed by Brace and deposited with The First, N.A., according to the affidavit. The local bank has a branch located in a building owned by Brace on Elm Street in Camden.

Another red flag. United Mid-Coast Charities held no accounts with The First.

Down to the bank went Crane and Eric Belley, United Mid-Coast Charities’ treasurer, to have a chat with The First CEO Daniel Daigneault.

There, the affidavit states that Daigneault produced a list of checks made out to the charity but deposited into the account of Brace Management Group, owned and operated by Rusty Brace.

The checks went all the way back to 2001. Several were north of $100,000. One exceeded $200,000. The breathtaking total: $3,803,000.

Do the math. That averages just under $300,000 per year for 13 years. For a guy who built his reputation on being the consummate “volunteer.”

Two days later, Crane, Belley and others sat down with Brace, who only weeks before had basked in a standing ovation for his years of service from the Camden Select Board. It wasn’t the first time he’d been so feted – back in 2005, the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce named Brace the Townsperson of the Year.

“Brace admitted that, without authorization or right, he stole donation checks made payable to UMCC,” Crane said in his affidavit. “(He) also admitted that he thereafter used those monies for his personal use and benefit.”

With that, a longtime pillar of the community crumbled. And at the same time, an entire community was left to wonder how a man they so trusted could have been so craven, so dishonest and, above all, so callous toward the very people he was supposed to be helping.

“It’s hard. It’s really, really hard,” Crane said in an interview on Tuesday. “This was a tremendous amount of money, with a huge impact on this community. You wonder what kind of an individual can do this – and do it for so long. It’s really hard to comprehend.”

Equally hard to comprehend is how Brace’s alleged sticky fingers went so unnoticed for so long.

To be fair, the United Mid-Coast Charities board could have spent months poring over their books without noticing anything amiss. By selectively depositing donors’ checks in his own accounts before the ink was even dry, Brace left no trace that the donations had even been made.

“It never went through our system,” said Crane. “He took checks before they even got into our bank accounts, into our accounting system, into our donor base. We never saw it. We didn’t even know they existed.”

Still, United Mid-Coast Charities was surrounded by more warning signs than a two-lane closure on the Maine Turnpike.

For starters, why would a nonprofit board keep electing the same president for 17 years? Because no one else wants the job? Or because the guy who holds it has a closely vested interest in staying put?

Crane said they now will consider term limits.

And why would a board that deals in seven figures – in addition to the funds pocketed by Brace, United Mid-Coast Charities’ tax filings show almost $4 million in donations from 2004 to 2012 – not see fit to hire at least one paid staffer to ride herd on the day-to-day operations?

Crane said that’s the way it’s always been.

And why, when it came to hiring someone to keep the books, did the board turn to KAX Office Center – owned by Brace and operated by his wife, Becky? (They sold the business earlier this year and the new owner, no surprise, has also sued Brace for selling her damaged goods.)

And since we’re asking questions here, why would The First deposit six-figure checks made out to United Mid-Coast Charities into an account not bearing that organization’s name? Because Rusty Brace was a good guy? Because he was the bank’s local landlord?

“This is obviously a highly unfortunate and disturbing situation when a charitable organization is victimized by theft,” said The First President Tony McKim on Thursday, reading from a prepared statement. “The First is cooperating with both United Mid-Coast Charities and law enforcement authorities in the investigation concerning the theft of UMCC’s funds.”

Ah, yes. The law enforcement authorities.

Even as United Mid-Coast Charities forms a task force to “look at all of our procedures,” as Crane put it, the FBI has been called in to determine whether Brace should be charged for allegedly running the charity with one hand and skimming – no, make that excavating – off the top with the other. His attorney, Peter DeTroy of Portland, declined comment Tuesday on both the criminal and civil prongs of the case.

Meaning this saga – which makes another former DeTroy client, convicted Maine Turnpike Authority embezzler Paul Violette, look like a petty shoplifter – has only just begun. On Tuesday, with no objections from Brace, the court authorized United Mid-Coast Charities to place liens of $3.8 million on his properties and bank accounts.

Yet even at this early stage, the age-old lesson of misplaced trust hangs over this tale like the fog over Penobscot Bay: Awards and accolades are like wallpaper – they’re nice to look at, but they sometimes conceal a serious lack of underlying integrity.

Back in 2006, prestigious Dartmouth College’s Class of 1956 put out its 50th reunion newsletter. Among other salutations, it cited Rusty Brace, one of its own, for his Townsperson of the Year Award.

Near the top of the blurb, Brace described his reaction to the honor as surprised “and a little embarrassed.”

He had good reason.