The Animal Welfare Society of Howard County was run so chaotically that spending donations on flat-screen TVs, tanning sessions, BMX bicycle racing trips, a new truck and restaurant meals was not illegal, a Howard County Circuit Court judge declared Monday.
Judge Richard S. Bernhardt granted an acquittal on one count of theft above $500, despite testimony that Robin Deltuva, who runs the private rescue and spay-neutering organization on 5 acres next to the county's own animal shelter in Columbia, spent up to $85,000 of society money on personal expenses over an 18-month period through May 31, 2009.
Deltuva, 37, who lives in a house on the property with her 16-year-old son, took over the decades-old operation when her mother, Michelle Deltuva, died early last year.
The problem, according to Bernhardt and defense attorney Leonard H. Shapiro, is that Robin Deltuva ran the society exactly as her mother had, with no board of directors, no pay structure, no bookkeeping and no records. The society's nonprofit corporation status had lapsed in 1996.
"First, I don't think there is a victim," Shapiro told the judge. And without a pay scale or a board of directors or rules or records, "there is no evidence whatsoever that Robin Deltuva took anything to which she was not entitled."
Prosecutor Colleen McGuinn argued that whether it was a corporation or not, the society was an entity under the state's theft laws — one that advertised that every dollar donated benefited the dogs and cats in its care.
"The defendant was aware this was not her personal piggy bank," McGuinn said. "It doesn't make it right that because your mother did it this way, you can do it."
According to testimony from volunteers, both mother and daughter lived on money that came to the shelter without keeping any real account of income or expenses. But Deltuva's mother lived without badly needed dental care, sometimes went without water or electricity, and drove a broken-down vehicle, according to testimony. The daughter, on the other hand, used the society's money for electronic games, appliances, trips, perfume and purchases to boost her son's BMX bicycle racing interest.
The spending upset volunteers at the center who donated their time and often cash, and they reported the purchases to county authorities. The shelter was always short of money to pay basic expenses, they said, a problem that grew worse after Michelle Deltuva died and Robin Deltuva took over.
Deborah Levine, an attorney who formerly volunteered at the society, has filed a civil suit in an attempt to wrest control of the property from Deltuva, who has refiled the society as a corporation, created a board of directors and plans to properly organize the society's finances, she said after the ruling.
"I'm furious," Levine said after the theft charge was dismissed.
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