NJSPCA: More a Home for ‘Wannabe’ Cops Than a Haven for Animals?

Caren Chesler | October 23, 2017 | More Issues
State agency finds NJ Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals spends more on police equipment and lawsuits than it does enforcing animal cruelty laws

For the second time in 20 years, a state watchdog has issued a scathing report that paints the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as a haven for wannabe cops who spend more time and money on guns and ammunition, police gadgets and lawsuits than on their primary mission: enforcing the state’s animal cruelty laws.

The State Commission of Investigation’s report, entitled “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: New Jersey’s SPCAs 17 Years Later,” found the nonprofit group fails to respond to animal cruelty complaints in a timely manner, spends exorbitant sums on legal billings rather than on animal care, and remains a haven for “wannabe” cops — some of whom believe they can use police powers, like making traffic stops, that go beyond the enforcement of the animal cruelty statutes.

“The NJSPCA — as constituted and governed, then and now — is and has been a dysfunctional organization,” the SCI wrote in its report. “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.”

Immediate repeal

The SCI called for the immediate repeal of statutes empowering the SPCA to enforce New Jersey’s animal cruelty laws and for that job to be handled by local government authorities, whether that be animal control, police, or health department. The commission also calls for the creation of a task force to examine issues surrounding animal welfare and protection in New Jersey.

In May of this year, NJ Spotlight published a two-part series looking into the practices of the NJSPCA, and detailing questionable financial practices, loss of its tax-exempt status, and alleged conflicts of interest.

The second story in the series revealed how the organization rode roughshod over local animal protection services that objected to its practices, including handcuffing and imprisoning an 84-year-old woman.

Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said Friday that the attorney general’s office was so concerned with the SPCA’s governance that it, too, had began investigating the agency — independent of the SCI — several months ago. Its own investigation prompted it to demand the installation of a monitor to oversee the agency’s operations.

“To avoid litigation that we were prepared to commence in order to compel such oversight, the SPCA consented. We are presently finalizing the terms of oversight,” he said, noting the monitor would be an independent third party with appropriate qualifications, who will provide broad oversight of the SPCA’s financial, organizational and management practices.

‘Hatchet job’

NJSPCA representatives called the SCI report a “hatchet job,” saying its staff is part time and volunteer and that it gets no money from the state. Its attorney, Harry Levin, blamed any allegations of mismanagement and mishandling of funds on a disgruntled former officer who was terminated.

“The SCI owes the hard-working men and women of the NJ SPCA a debt of gratitude for remaining focused on the mission despite all the ‘background noise’ generated by unsubstantiated claims of wrongdoing,” the group’s president, Steve Shatkin, wrote to the commission.  

Created in 1868, the NJSPCA, along with county SPCA’s, was empowered with enforcing the state’s animal cruelty laws. But the SCI, which was created by the Legislature to investigate waste and public corruption, says that NJSPCA’s structure is outdated and that the group’s power has gone unchecked.

SCI officials say its latest investigation was prompted by ongoing allegations of mismanagement and abuse of power, the most publicized being the society’s loss of its tax-exempt status last year for failing to submit federal tax forms for three consecutive years. The group kept that information not only from some of its own members but from donors, who may have been giving money believing it was tax deductible.

Ignoring animal cruelty

Among the report’s findings, the NJSPCA failed to consistently respond to serious allegations of animal cruelty and had records so sloppy as to make it impossible to determine what action was taken. For instance, it took more than a month for NJSPCA investigators to respond to a complaint involving two Yorkshire terrier puppies covered in motor oil and fleas, and it took six days for an officer to act on a complaint about dogs being left unfed or tied up with a rope outside an apartment. It took the society an average of 12 days to respond to complaints, the report said. And about 18 percent of the case records sent to the SCI had been dormant for weeks or months prior but showed a surge of activity after it the NJSPCA received the SCI’s subpoena for records, the SCI wrote.

The NJSPCA spent more on legal fees than any other expense — $775,000 over the past five years, alone. And yet the group failed to review bills and invoices to the point of not even knowing the total amount the organization owed. The society’s own bookkeeper, Joseph Biermann, testified that he only occasionally received invoices for legal work since he started paying the bills in 2012. The society’s outstanding legal bills are so high, it currently pays its law firm, Levin Cyphers, $3,000 a month, and when it recently received a large bequest, it paid Levin $100,000.

The group has about 55 investigators, including 20 humane officers authorized to carry weapons. About a third of them carried weapons, despite not having up-to-date authorization from the New Jersey State Police, the report said.

The group’s finances are also in disarray. Aside from losing its tax-exempt status, its charity status in the state Division of Consumer Affairs was not in good standing. It has also been operating at a deficit, partly because it pays so much money in legal fees but also because it obtains much of its revenue from animal cruelty fines, and yet it has no apparatus for collecting those monies. Its most recent 990 tax form showed expenses of $804,920 and revenues of $630,240 in 2015, a funding gap of $175,000.

‘Effectively bankrupt’

“The commission found that the condition of the NJSPCA’s finances is so dismal that even its own bookkeeper testified that given the totality of its expenses – including legal bills – the organization is effectively bankrupt,” the report stated.

The SCI further noted that the “wannabe cop” culture found in its 2000 investigation of the state and county SPCA’s may have intensified at the state organization when a group of former Bergen County SPCA members migrated to the NJSPCA in the early 2000s. That group included Frank Rizzo, the NJSPCA’s chief humane law enforcement officer and until April, its longtime treasurer, Shatkin, its president, and Joseph Biermann, a former vice president and secretary for the group who has been doing its bookkeeping since 2012. Some of the group once considered full-time law enforcement careers and wanted to make the NJSPCA more of a policing entity, SCI investigators wrote.

But the policing fervor sometimes went too far. The organization increased the number of officers carrying guns as well as the size of the fleet — to 30 vehicles — many of which sport the NJSPCA logo and lights and siren package and have advanced policing technology, including leased New Jersey State Police radios and law enforcement software. Several members testified using the lights and sirens, and most of those occasions had nothing to do with animal cruelty complaints, the report said. In 2014, it spent $25,102 on ammunition, more than it spent on direct animal-care expenses, such as vaccinations and hospitalizations, which totaled $23,004 that year.

The report also found that some of the same group members profited from business relationships with the society. Between 2013 and 2017, for instance, $93,500 was paid to Premiums & Promotions, a Hackensack-based company owned by Rizzo, and another $108,800 was paid for goods and services to businesses owned by other NJSPCA members or family of those members. Biermann’s bookkeeping business, JB Broadcast Media (JBMMI), received $40,350 from the NJSPCA and still receives $500 a month to provide bookkeeping services, maintain the operating cash account, and manage accounts receivables with municipal courts, when fines are paid. He also receives $20 an hour to fulfill open public records requests and $100 a month to handle NJSPCA insurance policies.

Member of the board

The society also voted last December to put its longtime spokesman, Matt Stanton, on its board of trustees. Stanton’s employer is MBI Gluck Shaw, a Trenton lobbying firm that was paid more than $85,000 over the past four years for lobbying and public relations services. The firm was instrumental in the passage of a 2006 law that solidified the SPCA’s role as primary enforcers of the state’s animal cruelty laws, the report says. In fact, the firm was paid $75,000 between 2006 and 2007, the years in which the legislature was considering bills that would actually have curtailed the NJSPCA’s powers. That sum included a $25,000 “honorarium” in the months after the enactment of the law.

Board members maintain there is a system in place for determining whether financial transactions with society members pose a conflict and so long as members are charging a fair price and the transaction is disclosed on the group’s IRS 990 forms, they are allowed.

“It would be illegal for one of us to charge five times as much for the product,” Biermann said.

As for the size of its legal fees, NJSPCA officials say the SCI improperly ignored the sheer extent of the legal matters the NJSPCA faces and the fact that the state has declined the society’s repeated requests for funding to fight them.

“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about our legal expenditures yet offer no solution,” Shatkin said.

In reporting its series, NJ Spotlight made several attempts to obtain Levin Cyphers’ legal bills and retainer agreement but was told none existed. The organization claimed it simply paid the attorney what it thought was reasonable in years that it had the financial wherewithal to do so.

In a letter to the commission, Levin, himself, said calling his fees “exorbitant,” is “pandering, provocative and akin to yellow journalism designed to mischaracterize and exaggerate.” He further stated the SCI has no jurisdiction over him or his law firm and went so far as to try to stop the report’s release last week, though he was unsuccessful.

“A Superior Court judge rejected Mr. Levin’s claim that his right to due process was violated and found that the SCI properly followed the statutory guidelines that govern it,” said Kathy Hennessy Riley, the SCI’s director of communications.

Continued failings

Dante DiPirro, a former deputy attorney general who co-chaired former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s animal welfare task force in 2004, said he believes the issuance of the report is a very important event. By showing the continued failings of the organization over the course of almost two decades, change may finally come.

“Now that we have this report finding continued systemic problems, fundamental reform is now an imperative,” he said. “Change often doesn’t happen until things get so bad that you’re at a critical mass. I believe we’re finally there.”

Steven Wronko, an animal rights activist, said state officials should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this to continue all these years. Wronko, along with his wife, Collene, alleged the NJSPCA and local officials were negligent in their oversight of a shelter in Helmetta. Their allegations led to the shelter’s closure.

“The NJSPCA has failed us and the animals, and there needs to be a full forensic audit of Levin, the NJSPCA, and their officers,” he said. “These people are a disgrace and need to be held liable and, if criminal, should be charged as such.”

Toni Ising, an animal rescuer from Flemington who has spoken to the attorney general’s office about the NJSPCA on at least one occasion, says the organization has squandered its public donations for years on legal fees and on toys that make them feel like police.

“Why buy 30 vehicles and bullet proof vests? This money should be used for the animals, not for their state-of-the-art cars. They are not police,” she said. “The police officers in this state should be outraged and knocking down the Legislature’s doors.”

She questioned why part-timers, ordinary citizens, should be allowed to carry guns with little training and in some cases, expired certification.

“This organization needs to be disbanded, not reformed,” she said.

While champions of animal rights were pleased with the report, a few saw glaring omissions. Nancy Halpern, an attorney with Fox Rothschild who also sat on McGreevey’s Animal Welfare Task Force, says the report failed to include any reference to consultation with and notification to the NJ Department of Agriculture. That’s really important, she said, because there may be infectious diseases involved, and if not handled appropriately, especially if animals are seized, it could lead to greater outbreaks, illness, and death.

There’s also a question of whether lawmakers will even heed the commission’s recommendations.

“There is no way to predict whether they will or not,” Halpern said.

There are currently two bills in the legislature — A-706 and S-1429 — which would require the NJSPCA to be accountable to the attorney general and that it could not undertake an investigation or law enforcement activity in a county without prior approval from that county’s prosecutor. But the bills have gone nowhere since their introduction last year. And the lawmakers who sponsored them, John DiMaio (R-Bridgewater) and Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Washington) did not return calls for comment.

At the very least, animal rights lawyers say superior court and municipal court judges need to be educated about the NJSPCA. As it currently stands, judges and even juries have a presumption that the NJSPCA is in the right.

“They afford so much deference to them in animal cruelty cases, some of which is not based on sound evidence,” Halpern said.