POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Report finds NJSPCA dysfunctional and full of ‘wannabe cops’

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

New Jersey’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or NJSPCA, is almost 150 years old. Its 55 agents, 20 of whom are humane officers authorized to carry guns, don’t run shelters. They’re charged with rescuing animals and enforcing laws against cruelty.

But a follow-up report by the State Commission of Investigation calls the nonprofit a “haven for wannabe cops” that “fails to consistently respond to serious allegations of animal cruelty.” Investigators cited a complaint about puppies, which is one of 120 cases pulled at random by investigators from the NJSPCA’s database.

“These two little Yorkie puppies are covered in fleas and apparently the owner’s idea was to put motor oil on them to remove the fleas … Someone did ultimately respond, but it took just simply too long,” said Kathy Riley, a spokesperson for the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.

It took about a month ago, according to Riley. She said chronic delayed response was just one symptom of the agency’s sloppy organization.

When asked if the NJSPCA is a dysfunctional organization, Riley replied, “Based on our findings, yes. We found operationally, management, financially, and just in their law enforcement capacity, yes.”

SCI investigators found the NJSPCA lacked formal, annual budgets to govern spending and had no mechanism to collect animal cruelty fines — its only revenue sources besides donations — and ran up exorbitant legal bills. In fact, it was three quarters of a million dollars worth.

“There’s no doubt they were certainly involved in a lot of litigation. It’s just the sheer number, the amount for an organization that’s supposed to be volunteer-driven, nonprofit type organization,” said Riley.

The SCI report followed up on its original investigation completed in 2000. Dante DiPirro, a former assistant attorney general who investigated the agency more than a decade ago, wasn’t surprised.

“There’s been no meaningful change in 17 years and we still have a tragically flawed system that was set up in the 1800s, and animals are the ones that are suffering,” said DiPirro.

The report says the NJSPCA’s finances were so chaotic, they didn’t realize they hadn’t filed tax returns for three years, between 2013 and 2015. They lost their tax exempt status temporarily. They’ve since regained it.

“Fiscal management. I think we have to do a better job and I think we are doing a better job,” said Frank Rizzo, chief of the NJSPCA Law Enforcement Division.

Rizzo admits officers, himself included, have profited from doing business with their own agency, which is another red flag raised by the SCI report. But he says, the board rewrote its bylaws to be more transparent. He says, the agency does get sued often.

“We are definitely running at a deficit and that’s legal fees. Budgeting is a difficult thing, when you don’t know what you’re getting. We have no money coming in from the state,” said Rizzo.

Rizzo said agents always respond to complaints within 24 hours, totaling 5,000 a year, but they don’t always update the files. He disagreed with much of the SCI report.

“They spent absolutely no time in the field with any of our officers or agents. Not one minute going on cases and seeing how we investigate animal cruelty cases and how we process things,” he said.

But New Jersey’s Attorney General Chris Porrino says that he is “very concerned about the SPCA’s governance and has been independently investigating the agency,” and will soon install a monitor to “provide broad oversight of the SPCA.”

But, the SCI recommended removing SPCA enforcement officers entirely and assigning enforcement of animal cruelty laws to local police and prosecutors.