In an attempt to derail legislation that would eliminate its state charter, the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has urged its members to call legislators and voice their opposition but to conceal their identities when doing so.
The bill, which would disband the NJSPCA, follows a scathing state Commission of Investigation (SCI) report that painted the NJSPCA as a dysfunctional organization that had failed to enforce the state’s animal-cruelty laws. The report came on the heels of a two-part investigation by NJ Spotlight that detailed the organization’s questionable practices, which included failing to file tax returns or submitting to government oversight.
Sponsored by Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), the bill abolishes the NJSPCA over a 13-month period and shifts enforcement of the state’s animal cruelty laws to county prosecutors and humane law enforcement officers hired by each municipality. The whole structure would be under the attorney general’s supervision. It has already passed the full Senate and is awaiting a vote in the Assembly.
In an email dated December 20 that was obtained by NJ Spotlight, Sgt. Phil Amato, a Warrant Commander in the NJSPCA, essentially wrote a cheat sheet for those opposing the bill, asking them to contact as many Assembly members as they could and to recruit two other people to do the same. But he specified, “If you are calling yourself, use a different name and email. Nobody should call and say they are from the NJSPCA.”
Using false names
“It’s clear how desperate they’ve gotten at this point,” said Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Hamilton Square), one of the bill’s sponsors. “But everything we’re hearing is that the tactic has blown up in their face. We’re used to people who are pro and opposed to things, but the tactic of using false names, this is beyond the pale. And I think it has told most of the legislators what they need to know about this organization.”
Lesniak echoed that sentiment on his Facebook page. When a commenter there suggested that with such tactics, it is the animals that lose, Lesniak responded, “They aren’t going to lose. My legislation will be signed into law.”
Reforming the agency has not been easy, in part because of efforts by MBI-GluckShaw, an entrenched well-established lobbying firm in Trenton that the NJSPCA has had on its books for decades. Lesniak sponsored the last legislation aimed at reforming the NJSPCA, back in 2006, after two equally critical state reports. Lesniak’s last law put gubernatorial appointees on the agency’s board and called for greater governmental oversight, including the filing of annual and quarterly reports with the attorney general’s office. But those reforms did not do the job, he said.
David Gaier, who was appointed by the governor to sit on the NJSPCA board but wound up quitting over the agency’s tactics, said this most recent deliberate attempt by the NJSPCA to deceive the New Jersey Assembly is itself enough reason to dissolve this gang of armed citizens running around the state with no oversight.
‘Spending donor dollars’
“These ‘wannabe cops’ are spending donor dollars on their outside counsel to pursue frivolous lawsuits as well as their own for-profit companies, while homeless animals suffer in the cold,” Gaier said. “The New Jersey Assembly and New Jersey Senate have the opportunity to do the right thing here and turn enforcement of animal cruelty statutes over to New Jersey county prosecutors and legitimate law enforcement.”
Michael Melchionne, a longtime animal control officer who founded the New Jersey Certified Animal Control Officer Association, said the NJSPCA’s tactics in its opposition says it all.
“These are the people, a group of private citizen volunteers, who believe they should be the lead animal cruelty enforcement agency! If they can’t be honest enough about who they are when they contact their own legislator, how can they be entrusted to enforce the law?” Melchionne said.
Animal cruelty enforcement is a law enforcement function and should not be the responsibility of private citizens who are volunteers. It should be handled by certified animal-control officers, who are already empowered by state statute to enforce New Jersey’s animal-cruelty laws, Melchionne said. Over the past 150 years, the NJSPCA has had numerous opportunities to demonstrate their ability to perform in a professional manner, and they have not, he said.
“No one is investigated twice in 17 years without cause,” Melchionne said.
The silent treatment
When asked about the emails, Amato sent this reporter to NJSPCA board member Matt Stanton, who until recently was a spokesman for the organization. Stanton said he had, “No interest in participating.” Timothy Martin, who works for the NJSPCA’s lobbyist, MBI-GluckShaw, and has represented them in the past said, “As I did not author the email you shared all I can tell you is I at no time have ever counseled any of my clients to mislead a legislator.”
The bill requires each municipality to appoint a humane law enforcement officer (HLEO) to investigate and enforce state and local animal-cruelty laws and who could sign complaints where violations occur. The HLEO could be an animal-control officer, police officer, or anyone who undergoes humane law enforcement training. The HLEO would be allowed to carry a firearm, provided they have completed a firearms-training course approved by the Police Training Commission and that they update this certification each year. The organization was criticized for having members whose firearms certification had lapsed.
The bill requires each county prosecutor to create an animal-cruelty task force, to enforce the state’s animal-cruelty laws. The task force would include at least one animal-cruelty prosecutor, whose job it would be to investigate and prosecute those who violate animal-cruelty statutes. The task force would also designate a county SPCA. While the bill dissolves the state SPCA, it leaves the existing county SPCAs intact, though they will no longer have any law enforcement powers. They will simply oversee animal welfare issues and shelters.
Racing the clock
The legislation has taken a rather circuitous route, with its sponsor initially forecasting its easy passage only to see the bill temporarily stall in a Senate committee and then fail to be put up for a vote for several weeks on the Assembly side. But the Assembly is now expected to vote on it January 8. If it passes, it then goes to Gov. Chris Christie, who according to Lesniak has indicated he will sign it. The governor’s office declined to comment. If the bill is not passed by the end of the current legislative session, which is January 9, reform efforts must start anew but without Lesniak, who retires this month.
“We’re hopeful we will get a vote on Monday, but it’s not on the official list yet,” Benson said, noting the final list of bills will be out Friday. “If it gets posted Monday, we expect to get the support we need to have it passed.”
The bill was introduced in the wake of what was the second damning report the SCI has written about the agency in 17 years. The latest report, released in October and 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.
A dysfunctional agency
In its report, the SCI called the NJSPCA dysfunctional and accused it of waste and abuse, conflicts of interest and self-aggrandizement, and said it routinely took a cavalier approach to financial and operational accountability, at the expense of donors and volunteers who wanted to help abused animals. The SCI called for the immediate repeal of statutes empowering the SPCA to enforce New Jersey’s animal-cruelty laws and said the job should be handled by local animal control officers, police, or health departments.
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.
“This bill is clearly something whose time has come,” said Benson, noting that both the New Jersey Association of Counties supports the bill, as well as the County SPCA Association. The only opposition legislators have seen at this point has been from the NJSPCA. “We have to move quickly to remove what, based on the SCI report, has clearly become a bad actor in the system and does not have the checks and balances that we expect on such an important issue.”