Associated Humane Societies Spends Exorbitant Amounts of Money on Lawyers

Courtesy of Barry Langdon-Lassagne

Courtesy of Barry Langdon-Lassagne

In my last blog, I detailed Associated Humane Societies’ history of conflicts. As you will see below, this combative behavior may also have severe financial consequences.

Outrageous Legal Expenditures Under Current AHS Leadership

High legal expenses are a sign of poor performance. Organizations may enter into litigation after failing to resolve conflicts amicably. Additionally, organizations may go to court if they conduct significant wrongdoings. In either case, this does not reflect well on an animal shelter. From an animal welfare organization perspective, money spent on legal fees means less resources are available to save animals and care for them.

The table below details legal expenses incurred at Associated Humane Societies (“AHS”), Monmouth County SPCA and Cumberland County SPCA over the last decade since Roseann Trezza became AHS’s Executive Director. The two SPCAs are included for comparative purposes since animal welfare organizations could theoretically incur legal costs relating to cruelty cases. AHS incurred 358 and 262 times more legal costs than Monmouth County SPCA and Cumberland County SPCA. To put it another way, AHS spent around $3.3 million more on legal fees than the two SPCAs combined over the last decade.

AHS Legal Fees (3)

While we don’t know exactly what AHS’s legal bills relate to, we do know about some of their disputes during this time period. In 2005, AHS paid $138,057 to settle alleged violations of the State’s Consumer Fraud Act and Charitable Registration and Investigation Act relating to deceptive fundraising practices. In 2003, AHS adopted out a dog who subsequently killed its owner. The dog’s previous owner paid AHS a $205 fee to keep the dog under observation for ten days, then euthanize, and cremate it. AHS subsequently fired an employee who objected to the adoption. The employee’s lawsuit against AHS went on until at least 2007. From 2011 to 2013, AHS fought to take the emaciated pit bull, Patrick, away from the veterinarians who helped save his life. Thus, AHS had plenty of disputes over the last decade.

The Patrick case was particularly appalling. Literally, AHS tried to use the court system to remove Patrick from the only loving home he ever knew since Patrick had “trademark registration number 23699” and was a “very valuable brand for commercial exploitation and fundraising.” While we don’t know how much of the nearly $1 million of legal expenses AHS incurred from 2011-2013 were due to the Patrick case, even 1 cent would be too much to pay.

AHS’s Board of Trustees is a Disgrace

That State of New Jersey Commission of Investigation (“SCI”) report on AHS railed against the organization’s Board of Trustees. The SCI report argued AHS consistently failed to fulfill its role of properly overseeing the organization:

The Board constitutes an ineffectual body that has ignored the mission of AHS to care for the animals and has allowed Bernstein free reign to operate the organization as he pleases.

This report called out AHS’s longstanding practice of putting too many employees on its Board of Trustees. Currently, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance states no more than 10% of a board should be paid staff members or indirectly compensated people. Additionally, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance states organizations should not appoint compensated persons as the chairperson or treasurer.

Despite the SCI report’s criticism, AHS still places too many employees on its board. Rosenna Trezza, AHS’s Executive Director, and John Bergmann, Popcorn Park Executive Director, both serve on the board. Furthermore, AHS’s most recent Form 990 listed Roseann Trezza as President of the Board of Trustees in violation of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance guidance. Additionally, Dr. Adriana Hordynsky also appears to work for AHS and is not listed as an independent Board of Trustees member. Assuming Dr. Hordynsky is an AHS employee, 3 of 8 or 38% of AHS’s Board of Trustees members work for the organization. Thus, AHS’s Board of Trustees still includes too many employees.

AHS’s continued practice of loading its Board of Trustees with employees creates conflicts of interest. Will paid staff members vote for things that are best for the animals, but not for themselves? For example, the Board of Trustees could vote for polices that require more of staff members to save animals. Will those Board of Trustees members vote to add work for themselves? Additionally, will Board of Trustees members who work for Roseann Trezza vote against her? Even if these staff members had employee contracts, its not too hard to imagine ways their boss could make life difficult for them. Thus, AHS’s practice of stacking its Board of Trustees with employees creates huge conflicts of interests.

AHS Board of Trustee member Barbara Lathrop has served for far too long. While AHS lists Ms. Lathrop as “Independent”, I highly doubt that is the case in the real world. Ms. Lathrop has sat on the Board of Trustees since 1976, which included 27 years during the horrific reign of Lee Bernstein. Personally, I think someone who has served on a board for nearly 40 years must be part of the organization’s status quo. Additionally, I’ve noticed Barbara Lathrop defending AHS on social media and even going as far to repeat verbatim AHS’s claim that the volunteers were to blame for AHS suspending the Tinton Falls volunteer program. In fact, in 2001 AHS’s auditors stated the organization should rotate its board members:

We believe that when the terms of certain Board members expire, the Organization should consider bringing in new Board members. This provides the Organization the opportunity to obtain the insights of new members. This would also allow the Organization to develop and further enhance their fundraising efforts and strategies by exposing the Organization to new contacts and ideas.

Two other AHS Board of Trustees members may also potentially have conflicts of interest. If Lynette Bono is the person named Lynn Bono in this article, this Board of Trustees member would be a former employee. This would be consistent with AHS’s past practices described in the SCI report. While a former employee may not have the perverse incentives of a current staff member, it is possible her perspective could be skewed towards management based on her past experience. Assuming Justin Rand is the same person as the Popcorn Park volunteer with the same name, this could also create a conflict of interest if Mr. Rand still volunteers at the shelter. For example, will a volunteer be willing to vote against the Executive Director and Board of Trustees member at an organization known for banning volunteers? Thus, as many as 6 of of AHS’s 8 Board of Trustees members may potentially have conflicts of interest.

While five of AHS’s current Board of Trustees members cannot be blamed for decisions made before their arrival over the last two years, AHS’s board has had a similar structure since 2003. For example, Roseann Trezza, John Bergmann and Barbara Lathrop all served on AHS’s Board of Trustees during the period the legal expenses in the table above were incurred. Thus, AHS’s dysfunctional board clearly allowed this wasteful spending on lawyers.

Donors and Contracting Municipalities Need to Open Their Eyes

Donors and municipalities contracting with AHS should be alarmed at these figures. AHS could have used this $3.3 million to help build a new shelter or at least significantly upgrade its existing outdated facilities in Newark and Tinton Falls. Alternatively, AHS could have spent more on rehabilitating animals both physically and mentally that were eventually killed. Instead, AHS wasted this money on lawyers.

As a donor and a taxpayer, you need to ask yourself how do you want your money spent? Should a significant portion of the money you provide an organization through philanthropic and tax dollars go to the animals or to lawyers? If an organization is so combative that it cannot settle its disputes amicably, what does that say about its compassion and empathy towards the thousands of animals that come through its doors each year? The time has come for AHS to remove and replace all of its senior management and Board of Trustees members with competent and compassionate people. If AHS chooses not to do so, donors and taxpayers should send their money to an organization that will do the right things for their animals.

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