Group's head denies any wrongdoing
Saturday, March 18, 2006
By Robert Travis ScottCapital bureau
BATON ROUGE -- Louisiana's attorney general has begun an inquiry of the Humane Society's financial activities related to the national organization's disaster assistance programs after Hurricane Katrina, the group's top official said Thursday.
Wayne Pacelle, president and executive director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the nonprofit charity has done nothing wrong and is cooperating fully. Pacelle said he did not know the intent of the inquiry but thought it might have been initiated by rumors circulating on the Internet about alleged inappropriate spending by the society.
"We don't think there's any issue," Pacelle said.
Attorney General Charles Foti is looking at fund-raising issues involving a charity that dealt with pets and reuniting pets with owners after the storms, Foti's spokeswoman Kris Wartelle said. She called it a "basic beginning of an inquiry" and declined to give more details. She said Foti has made no accusations of wrongdoing.
Donations to the Humane Society after Katrina were generous beyond expectations, Pacelle said. The group received $30 million toward relief efforts for pets and other animals after the storm seven months ago. The organization has already spent or has pledged to spend $25 million of that amount toward "recovery from Katrina and other disasters last year," and will eventually spend all the money, according to a society statement released this week.
"Only a small percentage of the money was specifically earmarked for the Katrina response, though we've spent the bulk of the money in the Gulf Coast," the statement said.
The society sent people to Pakistan and India in October to help after a major earthquake. It also assisted in Mexico and Florida after Hurricane Wilma. The estimated cost for the society's "non-Katrina disaster work" for 2005 was $500,000, the statement said.
"We're careful not to liquidate these donations in very short order," Pacelle said. The society will be dealing with the impact of Katrina for several years, and wants to use the money toward a sustained rebuilding effort, he said. Many animals victimized by the storm still need shelter and care.
The society has not used the money for staff bonuses, a "complete fabrication" that has made the rumor mill, Pacelle said.
Created in 1954, the society is based in Washington, D.C., and has regional offices around the country.
Within days after Katrina, the group provided personnel, equipment and financial support to local animal assistance and shelter groups along the Gulf Coast and participated in the direct rescue and care of more than 10,000 abandoned or lost animals. It also worked to reunite pets with owners.
The society reassigned more than 200 of its staff to respond to the crisis and coordinated and covered the field expenses for thousands of volunteers and animal-care professionals in the stricken areas.
Among the costs for Katrina, it spent $5.5 million on direct operations, $7 million in reconstruction grants to local organizations in the Gulf Coast, made $1.3 million in reimbursement grants to humane societies and rescue groups throughout the country that assisted relief efforts, and sent teams of professional trappers to the storm zones.
The group has committed $500,000 in partnership with Louisiana State University and the Dixon Correctional Institute toward an assessment for a permanent facility for animal care and sheltering. The society worked with the prison after the storm to run a temporary care center staffed by inmates.
The group worked in cooperation with the Louisiana Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to run a post-storm animal rescue center in Gonzales, and is spending $4.5 million to help get the LSPCA back on its feet.
Laura Maloney, head of the Louisiana SPCA, said her organization would be financially devastated were it not for the support of the Humane Society and the American SPCA, a national animal advocacy group not directly affiliated with the Louisiana society.
"We would have been in deep trouble if they hadn't come in with funding," said Maloney, whose local donor base was scattered by the storm.
The Louisiana SPCA, which handles animal control, sheltering and sterilization in New Orleans, saw its facilities wiped out by Katrina and lost nearly half its staff. It is operating out of a temporary warehouse in Algiers and is planning a new permanent home, Maloney said.
Maloney said she was not privy to the reasons for the attorney general inquiry. Under crisis conditions after the hurricane, the animal relief effort in many ways worked well but encountered logistical snafus and coordination problems between animal care groups and state agencies, she said. That was the extent of any problems Maloney said the Humane Society might have had with its operations in Louisiana.