The head of the Monmouth County, N.J., branch of the SPCA has resigned amid allegations that he sent racist, sexist, and homophobic text messages to employees.
Victor "Buddy" Amato is accused of disparaging women, African Americans, Jewish people, and gays in dozens of messages, according to a lawsuit filed last week in Superior Court in Freehold.
The lawsuit was filed by Sue DesMarais of Jackson, an animal-cruelty investigator, who says she lost her job when she complained to her superiors about the text messages.
Shortly after she was hired by Amato in August, DesMarais "began receiving humiliating and offensive hate messages which were sent to an entire group of subordinate employees" by Amato, the lawsuit charges.
Amato resigned late Wednesday as the chief animal-welfare law enforcement officer, hours after reports about the lawsuit. He did not respond to calls to his home Thursday.
In an interview with the Asbury Park Press, Amato said the messages were meant to be private.
"They were just a bunch of jokes," Amato said. "Jokes going back and forth between a bunch of the guys."
Among the allegedly messages sent was one that compared Michelle Obama and other blacks to primates. There were also "degrading and derogatory statements" about homosexuals, Kwanzaa, and alleged police brutality, the lawsuit says
A message about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., referred to the African American witnesses "as resembling monkeys," the lawsuit says. According to the lawsuit, the message read in part:
"Better to be pissed off then pissed on! That's why they left him in the street for a couple of hours. They did not want to disturb the dogs that stopped by to take a hard piss!"
In a statement Thursday, county SPCA president and CEO Jerry Rosenthal said the agency "has a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination and harassment." The SPCA is also named in the lawsuit.
"These allegations have been taken very seriously and have been under a thorough investigation," he said. Rosenthal said the state SPCA would provide support to enforce animal-cruelty laws in the county until a new chief is named.
DesMarais has not been asked to leave and remains a volunteer with the law enforcement division, he said. DesMarais could not be reached for comment.
In her lawsuit, DesMarais says she started at the SPCA as a volunteer and advanced to a full-time paid position.
She says she made complaints to the SPCA board months ago and provided the crude text messages. She says that no action was taken against Amato and that she was effectively terminated.
DesMarais took her concerns to a statewide advocacy group for the LGBT community. She eventually hired a lawyer and filed the lawsuit March 2.
"Sue DesMarais saw injustice, acted, and is a hero," said Andrea Bowen, executive director of Garden State Equality. "That was a smart choice on his part to resign. It's just horrifying."