N.J. SPCA, facing allegations of neglect and mismanagement, agrees to state-appointed monitor
The animal welfare organization could have avoided the action if it had followed recommendations of an investigative report issued in 2001, officials say.
Allegations that the New Jersey SPCA is a haven for " 'wannabe' cops" that fails to investigate animal cruelty adequately, spends "exorbitant" amounts on legal fees, and is plagued with "persistent operational waste" have prompted the New Jersey Attorney General's Office to appoint an outside monitor.
The decision came after the State Commission of Investigation on Friday released a scathing 62-page report, called "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing, New Jersey's SPCAs 17 Years Later." It slams the agency for problems and deficiencies that have festered or in some cases worsened since being detailed by a 178-page SCI report in 2000. The financial picture — including spending on unnecessary guns, ammunition, and cars — is so bad that the agency is effectively bankrupt, according to the most recent report.
"The Attorney General's Office is very concerned about the SPCA's governance, and has been investigating the agency – independent of the SCI – for months," Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said in a statement Tuesday. "The monitor will be an independent third party with appropriate qualifications, and will provide broad oversight of the SPCA's financial, organizational and management practices." It was unclear when the monitor will begin oversight of the agency.
The NJSPCA is a nonprofit that trains and arms volunteers with guns to enforce the state's animal cruelty laws. Porino said the SPCA consented to a monitor, avoiding the need for litigation.
The SPCA has been criticized over the years for rogue practices detailed in the 2000 report. Although there has been some restructuring, the agency has little oversight, and there have been controversial cases in which animal owners have alleged they have been targeted unfairly.
The SCI, a watchdog group whose purpose is to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse of public money, reported that had the SPCA or legislators adopted recommendations made in its earlier report, many of the current problems would not exist.
The NJSPCA "is and has been a dysfunctional organization," the SCI said in a news release issued with the report Friday. "It has engaged in and tolerated waste and abuse, conflicts of interest and self‐aggrandizement, and has routinely taken a cavalier approach to financial and operational accountability — all at the expense of unwitting donors and volunteers whose only motivation is to help abused animals."
Steve Shatkin, president of the NJSPCA, responded to the SCI in August after the report was provided internally. He accused the SCI and the Attorney General's Office of ignoring the agency's request for help in legal matters and finances to alleviate the pressures of a volunteer organization that relies on donations and fund-raising.
"It is quite obvious that the SCI staff and commissioners have a fundamental philosophical problem with the structure and role of the NJSPCA and have dedicated significant amount of financial resources to prove themselves right," Shatkin said in a statement emailed to a reporter that also noted SCI investigators "cherry picked" information that did not reflect the agency's practices. While the agency is not perfect, Shatkin noted, it has made meaningful changes over the years, including appointing a new treasurer, revising financial practices, and hiring a new accounting firm.
"The men and women of the New Jersey SPCA give selflessly and tirelessly of themselves to help others. This on top of their full-time jobs and family obligations," Shatkin said in his written response to the SCI. Responding to SCI criticism, he defended his use of an agency vehicle for commuting, saying that "as president, I have meetings both before and after work. Using my SPCA vehicle is both practical and efficient, time wise."
State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D., Union) announced last week that he would hold a hearing "to reform or replace" the SPCA, NJ.com reported.
According to the SCI report, the agency failed to investigate abuse and neglect in a timely manner, which the report said was "derelict" and puts "animal welfare in jeopardy." In one case, it took investigators more than a month to respond to an allegation that two Yorkshire puppies were covered in motor oil and fleas. In another case, it took 36 days for officials to respond to a complaint that dogs "in obvious distress" were sometimes left tied up and unfed outside an apartment.
Among the criticisms in the SCI report is the amount of money spent on attorney fees — $775,000 in the last five years — that the SCI said is its biggest expense and eight times the amount spent on direct animal care, such as hospitalizations.
In South Jersey, Burlington, Atlantic, and Cumberland Counties are among eight recognized SPCA charters throughout the state. Camden and Gloucester Counties do not have charters but have animal shelters.
At the Burlington County SPCA, detective Armand King said that although the agency pays $1,000 each year to maintain a state charter, it "answers" to the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office. So far this year, he said, 250 complaints have been investigated, leading to 24 citations. He said all financial records were in order.
"Eighty percent of our job is educating animal owners," King said, adding that most owners respond positively.