County Comptroller Orders Audit Of Hempstead Animal Shelter

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Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos (second from right) listens as animal advocate Bonnie Radafshar of Westbury talks about the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter. Radafshar claimed that her “Reading for Pets” program at the shelter, received enthusiastically by town officials, was never implemented. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

On Jan. 31, Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos ordered his department to undertake a financial and operational audit of the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter (TOHAS).

The audit, he noted at a press conference on Feb. 6, “was precipitated by the alarming animal abuse complaints received from [town] residents, as well as animal rights groups.”

At the Feb. 7 press conference in Maragos’ office, Diane Madden of Hope for Hempstead Shelter holds up a picture of “Rebel,” a dog who did not die at the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter, but according to Madden was ill-treated there. At left is animal advocate Nancy Giris of North Massapequa holding “Jack,” a rescued chihuahua.

Among the complaints to be investigated are animal neglect and abuse, unnecessary deaths, unsanitary conditions and unqualified staff.

“We assigned this audit a top priority, and will move quickly in the hope of preventing further animal abuse,” said Maragos, whose office sent the town a letter asking for an “entrance conference” within two weeks of its receipt. At this conference, his auditors will review the audit process, request records and arrange visits to the shelter.

“The town should not wait for the audit to protect the animals in its care,” said Maragos, after expressing the hope that town officials would work with animal rights groups.

Letter sent to Town of Hempstead announcing the audit. (Click to see full size)

Such cooperation has not been the rule, according to Diane Madden of East Meadow, founder and president of Hope for Hempstead Animal Shelter. Madden, who has sued the town twice regarding the shelter (one suit is currently in litigation), criticized Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino at Maragos’ press conference.

“Shame on Supervisor Santino, that we are here again, just a few short years later after the first audit,” Madden charged. “There was an audit done by New York State [Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office in 2012] and the [Nassau County] district attorney at the time {Kathleen Rice] called it a case study in mismanagement. …we’ll have to retrace those steps, because that audit has basically been shredded.

“Since Supervisor Santino took over, the animal shelter has worsened,” she added. “He’s brought in more patronage, he’s bullied out more experts and he’s provided no-show jobs for his [Republican] party. And the people that complained about their experiences—rescuers, current staff, past staff and volunteers—all of their pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” she added. “It’s critical that this audit be done, not just financially but operationally…Taxpayers are being cheated, and it’s long overdue that [this] is stopped.”

Response from the town, via its attorneys, to the comptroller’s letter.

Elizabeth Stein, an animal welfare attorney who has worked with Madden and other advocates, hoped that “Maragos will look through a few very pertinent legal issues of great concern to us and things that have come to our attention by FOILing certain documents. One of them is where the animals are going and whether they are leaving the shelter prior to the expiration of their legal hold limit—which basically means that if someone lost their animal and comes to the shelter, they will not be able to find them.”

Stein also urged Maragos to look into the legality of a form she claimed people who drop off their pets at the shelter are forced to sign.

“These people are surrendering their animals thinking that they will be re-homed or rehabilitated,” Stein said. “In fact, they are being asked to sign a form for euthanasia, which is giving the shelter an opportunity to euthanize these animals when in fact they should not be.”

Asked about the details of the upcoming audit, Maragos said that “we’ll be looking first and foremost at the qualifications of the [employees], their records in regards to animal care, the deaths that may have occurred, the health of the animals that are there…”

Maragos was quizzed on why he took on this particular issue when there so many other potential ones; after all, under his purview are municipalities whose combined budgets approach $4 billion.

The comptroller’s office responds to town’s objections to audit.

“Usually we don’t jump on the first complaint,” Maragos responded. “[In this case} we have people coming to us where life or death is involved. I think we have a responsibility to move very expeditiously and that’s what we’re trying to do here. We could not have ignored his audit. It’s within our power to care, and to represent the residents of Sullivan County.”

Regarding the length of the audit, Maragos stated that it depends on how cooperative the town is. With full cooperation, he estimated a report could be issued in two or three months. But he noted that recent history was against a quick resolution; his office had to resort to subpoenas to get the records it needed to do an audit of the controversial decision by the Town of Hempstead Industrial Development Agency (IDA) to grant tax breaks to the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream. That intergovernmental dispute is currently going through the courts.

As for what is possibly happening at the shelter, Maragos had strong words: “We cannot stand by and tolerate and condone animal abuse, and certainly not by government. We will move as expeditiously as possible to get to the bottom of this.”

 

Town Responds

In his response to Maragos’ press conference, Santino made note of the county’s Democratic Committee’s bypassing of the comptroller—who switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat last September to run for county executive this November—and stated: “Having been rejected by his newly adopted political party’s leadership, George Maragos is trying to inject life into his failing campaign for county executive by playing politics with the town’s animal shelter. He conveniently ignores the fact that a New York State audit has just awarded the town’s shelter its highest rating while the shelter maintains one of the lowest euthanasia rates of any shelter on Long Island. However, it is not surprising that Mr. Maragos, who famously equated the issue of gay marriage with marrying your pet, now considers himself an expert on the operations of a municipal animal shelter.”

Maragos, when running for the United States Senate seat in 2012, worried in an interview that legalization of same-sex marriage could also lead to the legalization of polygamy and that “some people would even like to marry with their pets.” He has since stated that same-sex marriage is the law and should be respected.

The comptroller’s office received a letter on Feb. 8 from the law firm of Berkman, Henoch, Peterson, Petty & Fenchel, representing the town, arguing that the county charter limits the comptroller’s audits to the financials. “… it appears that the audit is more about the treatment of the animals and the conditions at the Shelter and less about the finances, and thus, patently outside of the jurisdiction and audit authority of the Comptroller’s Office,” wrote Joseph E. Macy of the firm.

Responding for Maragos’ office, Deputy Comptroller Michael A, Scotto pointed out that “Notwithstanding your claims to the contrary, a comptroller’s audit power is not limited to financial matters, rather a comptroller may also undertake ‘performance audits.’ ”

See pertinent documents attached with this article.

 

Maragos Interview

The comptroller talked briefly with Anton Media Group after his press conference. Asked about the scope of the audit, he said, “We’re going to look at the qualifications of the people…and the staff that they have caring for the animals. Do they have an adequate staff? We’ll ask if the director [Mike Pastore] is qualified. Same with the money. They spend $4 million per year—show us how it’s spent, what amount is spent on salaries, what amount is spent on food and other services that the animals require. What’s the success rate in having animals adopted? How many animals have died in their care? Those are all very objective facts.

“I expect pushback, as they did with the IDA,” Maragos added of his latest audit. ”We had to go to court to enforce subpoenas on info that should be publicly available. I would expect the same here. I would not recommend it. I think the town and the supervisor have an obligation  to reach out to their concerned citizens and say, ‘How can we make things better?’ ”

Regarding Santino: “We had a relationship before, when I was a Republican. With the Valley Stream IDA, before we issued the subpoenas, I called him up and said, ‘Tony, you haven’t gotten back to me. I’m sorry, but we have to do what we have to do to move forward on behalf of the residents and to find out why they have to face these property tax increases.’ ”

Personal relationships, Maragos emphasized, should not have a bearing on the conduct of his office.

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