Agencies start Cecil shelter probe

January 26, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Two state agencies have begun investigating allegations of animal cruelty against the Cecil County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the state comptroller's office said it might investigate the facility's finances.

The State Board of Veterinary Examiners said its investigation is under way, and several witnesses, including ex-employees of the animal shelter in Chesapeake City, said they have been contacted by state police to set up interviews. State police, who recently said they planned to start an investigation, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Comptroller Peter Franchot was reviewing information supplied by Del. Michael D. Smigiel Jr. and might scrutinize the shelter's tax compliance as far back as five years, Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman for Franchot, said Friday. "If the facts support it, yes, we'll do a full investigation," he said.

The case has sparked a heated debate in Cecil County, where $674,000 in county funding went to the shelter last year. Allegations against the facility include charges that animal control officers have shot or incinerated dogs that did not succumb to euthanasia, and that the shelter's executive director, Jeanne Deeming, has used the site to run other businesses.

Nancy Schwerzler, president of the shelter's board of directors, has denied the allegations and has joined Smigiel in calling for an investigation by the state attorney general. Both the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have accepted Schwerzler's invitation to visit the shelter to study its practices and recommend changes.

County Commissioner Robert Hodge said he plans to propose creating a task force "made up of people well-versed in the field" to assess the results of the investigations and help commissioners develop a plan of action.

He also said the county will soon take out ads in the local news media inviting others to bid for the animal-control contract.

"We'll hire someone else or do it in-house if need be," Hodge said. "Things have to change."

The county, he said, would consider rehiring the Cecil County SPCA if it "cleaned up its act" and agreed to new language that gave commissioners more oversight over funding and personnel.

People who wish to pursue complaints of animal cruelty in Maryland must go to local law enforcement authorities, and in Cecil County, the state's attorney's office in Elkton would normally be involved.

But because an assistant state's attorney, Keith Baynes, and Sheriff Bert Janney are CCSPCA board members, Smigiel and others say county officials have a conflict of interest. County State's Attorney Christopher Eastridge, acknowledging the appearance of a conflict, brought the matter to the state police.

Smigiel, an attorney, has gathered more than 20 written complaints, but rather than taking them to Eastridge's office, he wrote about the shelter on a blog on his official Web site. In addition, dozens of people have shared stories about the facility at two meetings of the county commissioners.

Should investigators find criminal wrongdoing, Eastridge's office would carry out the prosecution or ask another county's state's attorney or the state attorney general to do so.

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