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5/18/2015
Emails: Auditor pushed for animal control investigation - News Journal

Xerxes Wilson, The News Journal 5/18/15

New Castle County Auditor Bob Wasserbach used his position to steer a 2013 audit of the county's dog control services –– and later pushed to have the government contract altered to benefit a pets group where he's on the board, emails obtained by The News Journal show.

The emails indicate Wasserbach had conversations about wanting to investigate the Kent County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, under contract to provide services to New Castle County. He later pressured officials to speed up the process.

Wasserbach was on the board of Faithful Friends Animal Society, an animal shelter near Elsmere, where he now is president. He maintains he "has done nothing wrong" and said he became involved in the issue to ensure animals were not being mistreated.

Ultimately, KCSPCA kept its county dog control contract, but the agency's leader said Wasserbach's emails show the auditor wrongly used his powers to better position his organization to bid for county business.

On Aug. 3, 2010, Wasserbach emailed Faithful Friends Executive Director Jane Pierantozzi and Delaware SPCA Director Anne Cavanaugh regarding the upcoming renewal of the New Castle County contract and then-county Executive Chris Coons.

"The County's contract with the KCSPCA expires December 31. The contract may be extended ... Therefore, we are going to have to provide Chris Coons with reasons why the contract should not be extended," Wasserbach wrote.

He had various email conversations that said KCSPCA, based near Camden, at the time was not treating animals properly and had unsafe conditions. Some messages also focused on its euthanizing policy.

KCSPCA shelter euthanizes unwanted pets, rather than only killing animals that are deemed to be sick or dangerous, as is the case with Faithful Friends.

The documents shed light on the mechanics of what prompted the KCSPCA audit, which when issued on May 3, 2013, raised concerns about financial issues, low vaccinations and "alternatives to euthanasia" in the shelter. As New Castle County's auditor, Wasserbach has the power to conduct financial and operational investigations of county departments and those under contract to ensure quality and proper bookkeeping.

But KCSPCA Executive Director Kevin Usilton maintains the Wasserbach investigation was not objective. He said those who didn't like the shelter's stance on killing unwanted animals pushed for the audit in an effort to convince the county or state to take the shelter business from KCSPCA and move it to another agency.

"In my opinion, the motivation for the audit was to degrade the KCSPCA ... so the state would take back dog control and they could build this model shelter using Faithful Friends no-kill philosophy as the model," Usilton said.

The emails were sent from Wasserbach's personal and government email addresses. The News Journal, through the Freedom of Information Act, obtained messages from the county executive's office from 2010 to 2013. Some emails from the personal address were made available because Wasserbach forwarded the emails to his government account.

The County Council still is processing a request from The News Journal for the messages from 2010 to now. Other correspondence was provided to The News Journal by county Chief Administrative Officer David Grimaldi, a vocal critic of Wasserbach and his recent investigation of county investments.

Grimaldi has said Wasserbach was too politically connected and not objective enough to conduct the investment audit, which was prompted by Grimaldi's decision to shift $92 million in taxpayer money to a new money manager, UBS, in 2012. Grimaldi was able to access the archived emails on the county server, which allows the executive office to search for all messages sent by employees.

Wasserbach confirmed that he sent the emails referenced in this story and said he was within his rights as auditor. He said his goal was to make sure shelter officials were following their county contract, which has regulations for how animals are treated.

Wasserbach keeps a bag of cat food for strays in his county office. He said his love for animals clouded his judgment in the years before his office started the audit. But he denies any wrongdoing.

"I was letting my heart get ahead of my brain," he said.

'I really needed to do something'

KCSPCA – which changed its name to The First State Animal Center and SPCA in 2013 – was founded in 1964 and is under contract to run animal-control operations for all three Delaware counties via satellite offices. Last year, it brought in more than 6,000 animals and found homes for nearly 2,000 statewide.

The contract with New Castle County is worth a little over $1 million a year.

Wasserbach said pursuing the audit was borne out of conversations in 2010. At the time, he had been county auditor for about five years, after being approved by the County Council following a position as Wilmington city auditor. He joined the board of Faithful Friends in 2007.

Wasserbach recalled hearing about sick shelter animals and some riddled with maggots at the KCSPCA. Some of the animals had been received at Faithful Friends, he said.

"There was even one story about a little girl who had gone out on vacation and her dog got away and made its way to the KCSPCA and the KCSPCA euthanized it without making enough of an attempt to find the owner," he said.

It was from these reports that Wasserbach started thinking about whether KCSPCA was the best group to be running the county operations, he said. He wondered if the organization was violating the county contract by mistreating animals, Wasserbach said.

He reached out to Pierantozzi, who he knew from Faithful Friends, for guidance. In June 2010, she sent him a three-page list of possible audit topics, suggesting he could check euthanasia rates and the personnel policy, "as some have failed the drug test."

Pierantozzi, a passionate figure in the state's no-kill shelter movement, said she wanted to help.

"If you have never done an audit before on animal care, it was a new item for him and he, like many other policy professionals, approached us for a professional opinion and expertise on how to do things properly and what to look for," she said.

That fall, Wasserbach also asked Pierantozzi and Cavanaugh whether they had filed any complaints with the county Auditor's Office hotline, where residents can anonymously report waste, fraud and abuse in government operations. Wasserbach said he "can't do anything until it is filed."

In the end, not enough material emerged. The audit fizzled when Wasserbach couldn't uncover any proof the shelter violated its contract.

"When I thought about it more, I realized there was not enough evidence and I was concerned about the fact I was a board member at Faithful Friends and it could be a conflict," he said in a recent interview. "Therefore I didn't do the audit."

But it didn't stop an investigation entirely. Several months after the audit was dropped, Wasserbach received a packet from former KCSPCA board members and citizens detailing alleged problems with the shelter operation, he said. It was enough to rekindle his interest.

"Looking at it objectively, some of the things they were saying, if true, were violations of the contract with KCSPCA for dog control," he said. "I thought then I really needed to do something."

By that time, Usilton had been brought on, filling the position left vacant by Murrey Goldthwaite.

"At that point, the organization was $450,000 in debt," he said. "It was a big struggle."

Wasserbach said the packet indicated other state and local officials received the same information. When they didn't act, Wasserbach said, he felt compelled to step in with an important change from the first audit: he consulted the county Ethics Commission.

The panel, which issues rules on conflicts-of-interest cases in county government, determined that the audit was allowable, as long as a third-party auditor was used –– and Wasserbach played only a "procedural guidance" role.

Wasserbach selected Anthony Scannell, a former colleague from their days at Wilmington Trust, to conduct the investigation. Scannell also worked on Wasserbach's ill-fated campaign for state auditor in 2002.

Usilton said Scannell was hardly a detached party.

"How can he be independent when he is friends with Wasserbach and receiving instructions from him?" asked Usilton, adding that Faithful Friends is also a competitor of his group.

Scannell did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Wasserbach said the arrangement insulated him from the actual audit. But emails show he forwarded Scannell old messages by Pierantozzi suggesting specific questions to ask and complaints from others.

Emails from the period also indicate Pierantozzi had conversations with officials in the administration of New Castle County Executive Paul Clark about a new home for Faithful Friends. In June 2012, Pierantozzi emailed former county police Chief Scott McLaren about "moving animal control back" to New Castle County from Kent County dependent on a land donation from the county.

Wasserbach said these conversations were independent of his office's audit. His involvement in the audit was only "administrative."

New Castle County legal teams clash over making auditor emails public

The activity in the audit process, however, was substantial enough that it caught the attention of former County Chief Administrative Officer Gregg Wilson, who wrote a July 2012 email reprimanding Wasserbach.

"I am becoming concerned about your continued involvement in this audit since you are representing that you have recused yourself. Your continued involvement could open both you and the county to criticism," Wilson said.

That note came about a month after Wasserbach sought to expedite the audit process following a request by Usilton, saying he needed more time to comply with a request for records. Wasserbach in emails said he thought Usilton wasn't being cooperative.

In that same time frame he contacted Pierantozzi, urging her to stop sending Faithful Friends emails to his work inbox. Wasserbach explained that he had "already gotten in trouble over this."

County splits animal service contract

The resulting 28-page audit in May 2013 made no mention of unsafe or unsanitary conditions for animals. Both Wasserbach and Usilton note that many of the allegations about the animal shelter that triggered the audit proved to be unfounded.

What the document did provide, however, were talking points for Faithful Friends officials who eventually explored how New Castle County animal services were awarded.

An email sent from Wasserbach to Pierantozzi in January 2013 discusses a conversation he had with county officials involving the results of the audit. He said the discussion moved to the possibility of the county doing dog control itself and partnering with a no-kill agency. He then asked Pierantozzi her availability to meet with county officials about that idea.

Later that year, a government memo to the county's top executives announced the bidding process would be split, separating shelter dog services and sheltering seized dogs. Faithful Friends and KSCPCA were listed, among others, as possible bidders in that correspondence.

Usilton said it shows the intent of the audit was to help Faithful Friends compete for county work.

"We are all competing for the same grant dollars and donor dollars," Usilton said.

Wasserbach, Pierantozzi and other animal service providers and state officials eventually met with County Executive Tom Gordon about possibly creating an alliance that would handle sheltering services for the county, with another organization or government doing animal control.

Gordon said he rejected the idea because of cost, possibly as much $1.5 million a year. Typically, no-kill shelters are more expensive to operate because of the funds needed to care for animals.

"They needed a lot more money than I was willing to give them," Gordon said in an interview.

Gordon said the group cited the audit to show that KSCPCA wasn't right for the job.

"They were saying, 'How can you stay with SPCA?' I said, 'Well, because they are charging $950,000.'"

Pierantozzi said the goal in meeting with Gordon –– and interest in how the contract was awarded –– was done to advocate for better policy, not necessarily because it could benefit Faithful Friends.

"When it goes back to the current model, the organization that comes in with the lowest price gets the contract. That is not working," Pierantozzi said. "We feel strongly that one agency can't do it all. It has to be a community partnership."

Usilton said the motives are clear. He said the audit was meant to degrade his organization at the benefit of the no-kill movement.

Two years later, he said the damage to the shelter remains, even with a new name, and makes caring for animals that much more challenging.

"Not only did we lose money, we lost resources, people quit volunteering here because people didn't think we were copacetic with our operation," Usilton said. "It was a big loss for our organization."

Attacks become norm in New Castle County government

Pierentozzi defends her email statements and said all were in an attempt to safeguard pets.

"We have been advocating for animals and communicating with state and county officials advocating for standards and oversight. And discussing that need with Mr. Wasserbach is no different than discussing it with other state and county officials. Something needs to be done to protect the animals," Pierentozzi said.

She said there are no plans to pursue a portion of the New Castle County's contract. The nonprofit organization has secured a 10- to 20-acre property on Airport Road for a new shelter. The land was donated as state surplus property to the Colonial School District last year with stipulations Faithful Friends be given a piece. They're raising $4 million to start construction.

Wasserbach said he was just trying to protect the animals.

"I can tell you I was never thinking about any business coming to Faithful Friends," he said.

About this series

This is the third in a three-part series on personal attacks and conduct by public officials in New Castle County government.

Visit delawareonline to read previous stories in this story and see copies of the correspondence from county Auditor Bob Wasserbach.

 

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