HARRISBURG - When it comes to so-called puppy mills, the state's Dog Law Enforcement Office in recent years failed to live up to its name.
An audit to be released Monday by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has found that the agency charged with enforcing Pennsylvania's strict new commercial kennel regulations stopped inspecting those kennels at the same time the requirements were to take effect.
The audit, a copy of which has been provided to The Inquirer, showed that through "lax leadership and ineffective program administration," the Dog Law Enforcement Office knowingly allowed kennels to operate for more than a year in violation of the law.
"They knew that kennels were violating the law, and they chose not to enforce it. That's a problem," said DePasquale, who as a state representative supported the 2008 legislation toughening the dog law to improve conditions for thousands of animals living in large commercial kennels. "It angers me as someone who helped get the law passed. The law is only as good as the enforcement of it."
The audit by DePasquale's office also found poor management of the dog law's restricted account, which is funded largely by dog-license sales and is meant to cover staff salaries and equipment. That account nearly went insolvent last year.
Under the dog law, a committee of veterinarians developed Canine Health Regulations mandating standards for lighting, ventilation, and ammonia levels in kennels selling or transferring more than 60 dogs a year.
The regulations were supposed to take effect in July 2011, but the auditors found that the agency did not install the necessary equipment to monitor conditions in the kennels, and that dog wardens did not inspect kennels for a year after implementation.
The auditors found that the office also allowed kennels to operate without proper engineering certification, and issued waivers that gave operators up to three years to come into compliance.
As a result, the agency's management "made a conscious decision to work with the kennel owners rather than citing them for not being in compliance with the regulations at July 1, 2011, essentially choosing to delay enforcement of the Canine Health Regulations," the report said.
In its written reply, the Department of Agriculture, which oversees dog-law enforcement, said the audit was based on incomplete and inaccurate information and failed to acknowledge improvements made since the audit period ended last fall. That was close to the time when director Lynn Diehl was removed from her post; she ran the office during the period when no commercial kennels were inspected.
In addition, the department's reply said, all 54 licensed commercial kennels in the state have now met engineering design requirements, all were inspected twice in 2012, and kennels not in compliance are being cited.
The auditor general's findings mirror those included in a lengthy report on enforcement produced by a subcommittee of the governor's Dog Law Advisory Board in September.
The audit "confirms that the Department of Agriculture chose not to enforce the law, and the residents of Pennsylvania deserve better," said Marsha Perelman, a member of the advisory board subcommittee that produced the enforcement report and a leading advocate for the landmark state dog law.
The audit also found that the agency needed to "improve its stewardship" of the dog law's restricted account that once stood at $15 million but dwindled to $3 million in 2011-12, leading dog law officials to predict it would be depleted by the end of this year.
The account took the biggest hit in 2010 when then-Gov. Ed Rendell and the legislature shifted $4 million from the account to plug a budget deficit. But the problem was exacerbated, the audit found, by later decisions to use the fund to pay the salaries of 12 people not employed by the dog law office.
Record increases in dog-license sales this spring and cost-cutting measures have helped restore funding levels, the Department of Agriculture said.
The audit acknowledged that improvements in the department, including installation of monitoring equipment in kennels and stepped-up inspections, had been made since the completion of its investigation in October.
Nevertheless, the auditors urged the agency to "effectively enforce the law," establish a leadership team to ensure proper management of the dog law program, improve oversight of dog wardens, and step up training.