NJSPCA on Its Last Legs? Bill to Disband Agency Clears Legislature

Caren Chesler | January 9, 2018 | Politics
Measure roars through Assembly 63 – 0, heads to governor’s desk for signature

NJSPCA patch
After years of criticism and two scathing state Commission of Investigation reports calling for its dissolution, the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is well on its way to being disbanded. The Assembly passed a bill yesterday by a resounding 63 to 0 to withdraw its state charter; the measure has now cleared the Legislature and heads to the governor.

The bill, S-3558/A-5231, which abolishes the organization over a 13-month period, follows the latest SCI report that painted the NJSPCA as a dysfunctional organization that had failed to enforce the state’s animal-cruelty laws. (The NJSPCA is not in any way related to the national SPCA.) 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.

Shifting responsibility

Sponsored by Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), the bill shifted 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.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see it pass by such a large margin, in light of the intense lobbying that the NJSPCA did against it,” Lesniak said.

Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton Square), who called the NJSPCA a “bad actor” said
“I think all of my colleagues saw we needed to reform the broken system to assure that justice for animals would be uniform across the state. This starts that process and it brings accountability to our animal cruelty law enforcement for the first time.”

The bill now goes to Gov. Chris Christie, who Lesniak believes will sign it.

“… I worked very closely with the AG’s office and with the prosecutors association and the sheriffs association, and the governor is very close to all of those law enforcement organizations,” Lesniak said.

The governor’s office does not comment on pending legislation.

Fake names

Not surprisingly, the NJSPCA strongly opposed the measure, and in an effort to derail its passage, urged its members last week to contact legislators, particularly members of the Assembly, as it had already passed the Senate at that point. The effort may have backfired, though, because the organization told NJSPCA members not to identify themselves when making those calls.

“It certainly didn’t help their cause,” Lesniak said. “I can’t say whether it hurt it, but I do know my fellow legislators, and we do resent tactics such as that. It may have swayed some people who were on the fence.”

Benson agreed. “It was clearly in the discussions with legislators. It was on a number of their minds. It definitely was helpful in showing what kind of organization we were dealing with and why the reforms were so needed,” he said.

Sgt. Phil Amato, a warrant commander in the NJSPCA who authored the December 20 email telling its members to conceal their NJSPCA affiliation, said he did so for their own safety, as they have been harassed by animal-rights activists both on and offline for some time, and they feared retaliatory action if it became public that they opposed the bill.

No deception intended

“I wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. I did it for the safety of the officers and myself,” he said, adding, “I’ve had people call me and threaten me on the phone.”

He said the NJSPCA — and possibly other authorities — are actually investigating how the email became public, and whether there are legal issues with its dissemination, given that it may be considered the correspondence of a law enforcement officer. He went on to say that he is a managing partner for a fairly large construction company, and the publicity his email has received has caused him irreparable damage personally and with his customers.

Steve Shatkin, the NJSPCA’s president, echoed Amato’s sentiment, though he said that while members can explain that they wish to remain anonymous, they should always say they are an NJSPCA member.

“Sgt. Phil Amato’s email, which has garnered so much attention, attempted to deal with this concern over retaliation but obviously fell short,” Shatkin said.

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.

What the bill mandates

The new 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.

“We are very pleased that the bill has passed. Hopefully, the governor will sign the bill,” said Nancy Beall, who headed up the Atlantic County SPCA.

Maureen Prince, a volunteer at Rescue Haven Foundation and Second Chance Pet Adoption League in Oak Ridge, said she supports the disbanding of the NJSPCA, largely because of an animal-cruelty case in which she was involved in Hopatcong in 2016, where most of the charges were dropped.

“Even though the owners were issued a lifetime ban from living with animals, I still feel strongly that justice for these dogs did not happen in this case,” Prince said. “There must be a better way to protect and seek justice for New Jersey’s abused animals than the old way of doing things.”

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.

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.