NCCo animal control audit subject of ethics complaint; Weiner: the ethics code is insufficient to cover the “potential violations” he sees in the emails.
Councilman Bob Weiner has argued the ethics code is insufficient to cover the “potential violations” he sees in the emails. Weiner’s attempts to urge New Castle County Council to act have been thwarted by Wasserbach’s Council allies.
Kevin Usilton, Executive Director of First State Animal Center and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he acted now because he felt the County Council was allowing the auditor to “hide behind them.” Wasserbach is an employee of the council.
“I expected New Castle County to do something based on information that came to us in those emails,” Usilton said. “Basically they haven’t done anything."
NCCo animal control audit subject of ethics complaint
Xerxes WIlson, The News Journal 10:55 p.m. EDT July 15, 2015
The New Castle County Ethics Commission has been asked to investigate if Auditor Bob Wasserbach’s role in a 2013 audit of the county’s animal control provider broke conflict-of-interest rules.
The complaint was filed last week by Kevin Usilton, executive director of First State Animal Center and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was called the Kent County SPCA when the audit took place.
Usilton said Wasserbach inappropriately influenced an audit of the KCSPCA to benefit another nonprofit animal shelter group, Faithful Friends Animal Society, where the auditor now is president of the board.
The News Journal in May reported on thousands of Wasserbach’s emails that show his discussions of the audit and Faithful Friends. Some of the correspondence indicates that Wasserbach was involved in a push to get the government contract changed in a way Faithful Friends could benefit and share in handling services for New Castle County. The contract is worth about $1 million annually.
Usilton said he acted now because he felt the County Council was allowing the auditor to “hide behind them.” Wasserbach is an employee of the council.
“I expected New Castle County to do something based on information that came to us in those emails,” Usilton said. “Basically they haven’t done anything. ... The only recourse was that the Ethics Commission might look at it.”
The request asks the commission to decide if emails Wasserbach sent before, during and after the audit show he improperly used his public email to conduct private business, whether he used his authority to benefit Faithful Friends, and whether he sufficiently separated himself from the audit process.
Wasserbach has denied he instigated the audit because of his role with Faithful Friends. He said the investigation was prompted by complaints about animal welfare and possible violations of the county contract.
“The only comment I have is I welcome the investigation,” Wasserbach said on Wednesday.
The Ethics Commission investigates allegations of misconduct and violations of the county code. Julie Sebring, legal counsel to the Ethics Commission, now has about two months to conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if the complaint is worth a deeper look.
Her findings will be presented to the seven-member panel that will decide whether to open a full investigation, Sebring said. If the panel does, an independent investigator then has 180 days to collect evidence and testimony from those involved before reporting back to the panel. Ultimately, the panel will decide whether there is a violation of the county’s ethics rules.
“Sometimes these things can take many months. Many times with the complexity of the issue, it doesn’t take nearly as long. It really depends on the complexity of the complaint,” Sebring said.
The commission, which issued opinions on four complaints last year, also can refer violations to authorities for criminal investigations.
The News Journal obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information of Act request and from county Chief Administrative Officer David Grimaldi, who has been critical of Wasserbach and his investigation of county investments. Grimaldi has said the audit was improperly motivated.
Grimaldi also has raised questions about the Wasserbach’s ties to Dover lobbyist Rhett Ruggerio. The two are friends and also own four rental properties together.
The county Executive Office this spring also released 300 emails Wasserbach sent from his government account to Ruggerio. The release was in response to a FOIA request from an ally of County Executive Tom Gordon, over the objections of lawyers for the County Council.
Wasserbach later went to the Ethics Commission and asked for an opinion about his conduct. The commission last week denied the request, saying opinions are provided only to officials seeking an assessment of whether a future action will meet county ethics guidelines. The commission said a complaint, which deals with actions that have already take place, would need to be filed for the issue to be considered.
Usilton’s complaint does not cover those emails.
The KCSPCA audit and Wasserbach’s correspondence with Ruggerio have split the County Council, with some defending Wasserbach and others calling for an outside investigation of the issues.
Councilman Bob Weiner has argued the ethics code is insufficient to cover the “potential violations” he sees in the emails.
Grimaldi on Wednesday defended how the administration has handled Wasserbach.
“I think we have to let the Ethics Commission conduct their review. I’m not sure it is all in their jurisdiction. I think it could rise to something more than Ethics Commission’s [jurisdiction],” he said.
John Flaherty, director of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said he has encouraged both the administration and Wasserbach to take their fight to the commission for months. He called Usilton’s complaint a first step toward some resolution, rather than having lawyers from either side argue about interpretations of the law.
“The Ethics Commission is as independent of an arbiter you can get,” Flaherty said. “I think we are going to get some clarity.”
Agency to quit animal control before state starts service
Margie Fishman, The News Journal 12:41 p.m. EDT July 15, 2015
The future of animal control in Delaware is up in the air, after First State Animal Center and SPCA abruptly canceled its contacts for all three counties and the city of Wilmington.
In a 14-1 board vote, First State leaders on Monday gave notice to terminate all contracts effective Sept. 15. The move will cost the Camden-based nonprofit organization $3 million, said Executive Director Kevin Usilton. He declined to name the dissenting board member, citing privacy concerns.
Usilton said swift action was necessary, because the organization worried that staffing shortages would prevent it from fulfilling its contract functions, exposing it to potential lawsuits.
So far, none of the 27 animal control officers have resigned, he said. As of mid-September, a total of 45 First State employees, including officers, dispatchers and kennel attendants, will be out of a job.
First State Animal control officers have been hunting and interviewing for other jobs since the state announced early this month that its Office of Animal Welfare would assume responsibility for controlling stray animals, regulating and inspecting kennels and shelters, preventing the spread of rabies, and investigating animal cruelty and dangerous dog complaints.
The transition for animal control, approved in the recent state budget, was expected to happen gradually as First State’s contracts with the local governments expired over the next 18 months. Under a $3.5 million budget, the state office planned to hire 14 full-time officers and nine seasonal officers, compared to First State’s 26 full-time officers, and to solicit budget proposals from area shelters to house animals.
Until the state office is fully staffed, local governments will need to shoulder the burden of animal control, Office of Animal Welfare Director Hetti Brown said Tuesday. A closed-door meeting between state and county officials to discuss possible scenarios is scheduled for Monday.
“We’re open to any and all options at this point,” she said.
New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon said the county may need to contract with a private provider until the animal welfare office takes over. Currently, First State is the only animal law enforcement provider in Delaware that can handle all three counties.
“I’m not going to have the police department chasing dogs,” Gordon said, adding that it was too early to discuss how the shakeup could impact the county budget.
Also Monday, First State canceled a one-year contract extension to manage animal cruelty investigations and rabies control for the state, said Brown, who promised no interruption in service.
The animal welfare office will consider expediting hiring to handle the increased load, she said.
Usilton previously said that First State’s 600-capacity shelter will remain open but won’t bid for the state’s business.
After mid-September, the organization will stop all euthanasia and become a no-kill shelter focusing on owner surrenders and animal adoptions, he said. Recently, First State stopped offering euthanasia services to non-shelter animals.
Over the next two months, First State will close its animal control warehouse building on Cochran Lane, sell its vehicles and equipment and disconnect the phone number used to report animal control complaints.
The nonprofit will also close its adoption center at the PetSmart at 1390 N. DuPont Highway in Dover, pulling 15 cats and dogs out of the store.
To generate more income, First State plans to open a doggy daycare and boarding facility in its building, which was funded, in part, by a $2.7 million state contract when the shelter opened in 2007.
Since that time, First State has outcompeted other animal welfare organizations to win lucrative contracts from the counties. The organization has also encountered criticism from no-kill advocates over its euthanasia policies.
Usilton, in turn, has lambasted Brown and state legislators for what he considered a secretive and politically-motivated process aimed at putting First State out of business.
Asked if his organization’s decision will hurt lost and stray animals, Usilton said he anticipated that the state would fill the void.
“Our mission is not to perform public safety,” he said. “Our mission is to look after the animals.”
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