Deltuva works to stay in animal welfare business

Shelter operator faces third legal challenge

September 26, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

After Michelle "Shelly" Deltuva died last year, daughter Robin Deltuva took the helm of the 66-year-old Animal Welfare Society of Howard County and, according to recent court statements, set about running it the same way her mother had for two decades before her — by the seat of her pants.

First mother, and then daughter, lived off the society's donations and revenue without any kind of internal financial structure, even as basic bills for animal medicines, heat and electricity piled up. The society's board of directors had ceased to exist around the time the organization's Maryland registration as a nonprofit corporation lapsed in 1996, according to court testimony.

There were no books, no salaries and no budget. Robin Deltuva and her family ultimately moved into a rented house on the Columbia property, a move that disgruntled volunteers said further reduced society income.

When some of those volunteers learned that Deltuva was using society funds to buy things such as flat-screen TVs, a computer, video games and DVDs and to pay for tanning sessions, trips to BMX bicycle races for her son, and her truck, they went to the authorities. But a theft charge accusing Deltuva, 37, of using up to $85,000 in donations meant for animals for personal purposes fell apart in court because the society was so disorganized, the case was dismissed, even before the defense presented any evidence.

The society might have been disorganized, but, Deltuva said, the way her mother and she lived from society funds was the only means of reimbursement she knew. To the organization's disgruntled volunteers and donors, the practice of using donations and fees for living expenses looked more like theft.

"I started to get a sick feeling in my gut," volunteer Heather Dalton testified at Deltuva's theft trial, describing how she felt when she discovered the spending.

Organizational chaos

Deltuva is still running the society. As the former volunteers see what they feel is an illegal operation run by an unqualified, unauthorized operator, they are pursuing civil action to have a court-appointed trustee take over. Deltuva had earlier escaped a Howard County Animal Control charge of animal negligence involving a dog.

Deltuva says she's trying to reform the structure of the organization she inherited, and some supporters remain at her side, working for free to help her start over. But for the public, on which the society depends for donations and adoption and inoculation fees — as well as the volunteer labor that runs it — it is a confusing situation, at best.

Petra Walton, a volunteer who has stayed with Deltuva, backs her up. "I can personally attest to the fact that she has been dedicated to the animals in her charge." Walton said she never delved into the society's financial structure, though.

By all accounts, the society is profoundly disorganized and seemingly unaccountable to anyone, despite its recent legal troubles.

The organizational chaos was crucial in getting Deltuva off the hook on the theft charge. Judge Richard S. Bernhardt said that since the nonprofit's corporation registration had lapsed in 1996, there was no legal entity that could be construed as a victim, and with no salary structure or bookkeeping, there was no way to define any alleged theft.

Deltuva's opponents testified that they knew things weren't run right under Shelly Deltuva, and the society was always on the brink of financial ruin. But she was so clearly devoted to the animals — sometimes going without dental care or utilities at her own Woodstock home — that they never pressed the issue while she was alive.

"That's on us," said Susan Bauer, one of the former volunteers and a lawyer. "That's our responsibility. That's our fault. We were wrong."

Deborah Levine, also an attorney and former volunteer at the society, who, with other former volunteers helped inspire the criminal charges, has her own animal rescue nonprofit, called Felines/Fidos in Trouble Rescue. Levine is seeking a court injunction to remove Robin Deltuva from the property on grounds that she has no legal authority to operate the society shelter, and is in effect an unauthorized, illegal interloper.

"Robin changed it from being a shelter to being a puppy mill," Levine said after the trial, citing a sharp increase in pet adoption fees, from $125 to up to $400 per dog. Deltuva said the charges merely pay the cost of animal medical care. She regards Levine and her allies as enemies who are trying to wrest the shelter from her.

Changes 'in right direction'

Aided by the remaining corps of loyal volunteers, Deltuva said she's revived the society's corporate status, has a new board of directors, and is now on salary and paying taxes rather than living off donations. The shelter gets its money from donations and from adoption fees.

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