Timeline of Events at Niagara County SPCA Amid Turmoil

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Niagara County SPCA Timeline Sent to Niagara Reporter by Whistleblower

 

  1. December 2019 – Board President Susan Agnello-Eberwein (SAE) gropes employee and shelter veterinarian, Dr. Brown by the ass and says, “I’d like to unwrap him under the Christmas tree.” It will be important to keep in mind throughout this narrative that SAE is (was) chair of the Niagara County Independence Party and very much tied into the Niagara County Republican Party and politics in general.
  2. January 2020 – SAE is quoted as saying “dancing faggots” while at shelter referring to drag performers the SPCA had at its annual Mardi Paws event in February 2019.
  3. April 2020 – Liz Marshall (LM) is hired as director of organizational development
  4. May – December 2020 – LM is discovered to be speaking to SAE several times a week and feeding her information on everything that happens and is said in workplace; SAE uses information against various staff, including Tim Brennan (TB), executive director. This becomes problematic since LM is supposed to be handling all human resources issues and every employee is aware she is favored and protected by SAE and that she reports everything back to SAE; not one employee trusts her and a deep level of resentment and contempt develops towards her. LM becomes toxic to entire shelter environment but TB’s hands are tied regarding letting her go since SAE is protecting her.
  5. July 2020 – Shelter manager, Lauren Zaninovich (LZ) has title changed from shelter manager to director of shelter operations.
  6. July – December 2020 – culture and atmosphere at shelter begins downward spiral and becomes noticeably more toxic and hostile due to SAE’s oppressive interference with shelter operations and personnel decisions.
  7. November 2020 – SAE and executive committee (EC) of Board eliminate director of shelter operations, Lauren Zaninovich’s (LZ) position without board approval or knowledge of executive director (ED), TB. TB is informed decision has been made without regard to impact on him, shelter or other employees. Board members are also “told” of move afterwards. Reason given for position elimination is “budgetary reasons” and overlapping duties with ED. This is in clear violation of By-Laws which give all hiring and firing authority to ED. This move was presumably in retaliation for LZ objecting to SAE’s use of the word “faggots” and vocalizing her concerns with LM’s incompetence and constant errors, causing additional work for other staff.
  8. November 2020 – TB is stripped of his title as ED by executive committee without board approval; titles of other staff are changed by SAE to align with her (political) agenda. TB is given title of director of shelter operations, the title of the position LZ held until it was “eliminated” earlier this month.
  9. November 30, 2020 – TB participates in finance committee meeting to discuss 2021 budget; meeting lasts 3 hours…..
    1. Every expense and revenue line for 2021 is examined and cut to the bone; despite every attempt to balance budget, final budget reflects a $70,000 deficit.
    2. Shelter employees are denied 20 cent an hour raise (requested by TB), many of whom are minimum wage employees.
    3. Employee Christmas Party is denied because of $500 cost.
    4. LM is awarded $10,000 raise by SAE citing “additional job responsibilities” despite TB being her immediate supervisor and objecting to raise due to performance issues he has with her. Also, LM has only been employed for less than 8 months, did not request raise and did not deserve raise. Presumably, raise is SAE’s way of ‘rewarding’ LM for her loyalty and being her own personal informant.
    5. TB presents proposal to change payroll companies which would result in $11,180 annual savings; proposal is denied presumably because SAE’s son-in-law works for Paychex (current vendor) and would lose account if the SPCA switched.
  10. December 11, 2020 – Staff member and veterinary assistant, Aaron Caraco (AC) files formal written complaint to Board of Directors against SAE regarding use of the term “faggots” and constant touching, creating uncomfortable environment.
  11. December 2020 – Less than 72 hours after finance committee meeting to develop 2021 budget, TB is contacted by treasurer and executive committee member, LuAnne Brown and told to add $107,000 to an already deficit budget for new hire, Pat Proctor that executive committee made. Budget now reflects a deficit of $177,000 for 2021.
  12. December 2020 – Executive Committee informs TB that they have hired Pat Proctor (PP) as director of development to help with marketing and fund raising.
    1. Hiring was done without involvement of ED, another clear violation of the By-Laws that give ED all authority for hiring and firing. Position was never approved by Board either; Board was “told” of PP’s hiring at December BOD meeting.
    2. Position was never posted internally (normal procedure), never posted externally, nobody else was recruited or interviewed for position.
    3. In fact, shelter is in need of a part time grant writer and a part time coordinator for donor relations (gift posting & acknowledgement; stewardship reports, etc.) but ED has not been given funds for such a hire, despite critical nature and impact of positions.
    4. Shelter had record year in 2020 for fundraising (donations plus fund raisers), which reflected a 42% increase in public support over 2019.
    5. Shelter has an exceptional marketing staff member, Kimberly LaRussa (KL) who has garnered significant exposure and awareness for shelter through her use of social media & media relations (i.e., a TV station from Germany came to do a story on pizza box campaign she developed with local pizzeria owner; video of one of our shelter dogs is picked up by Dodo, the largest published platform on Facebook).
    6. After the year the shelter had in 2020, there is not a nonprofit board in this world that would pay $107,000 to bring in a new hire for “help with marketing and fund raising” simply because it is NOT NEEDED!!
    7. Executive committee claims PP was hired to raise money from large donors to build a new shelter; however, there has been no planning completed for a new shelter or capital campaign (feasibility study, organizational readiness assessment, prospect identification and research) which normally would take at least a year prior to hiring anyone to go out and meet with donors.
    8. A major gifts officer position such as this normally requires extensive, successful fundraising experience plus professional certification. Noteworthy that PP has NO professional fundraising experience whatsoever.
    9. PP’s compensation package includes a $10,000 incentive clause, which is a clear violation of the Code of Ethics for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). Nonprofit fundraisers cannot have any compensation tied to commissions, finder’s fees or contingency fees. This was verified with the National Council on Nonprofits and the NYS Animal Protection Federation.
    10. Despite TB’s 25 years of fundraising experience in nonprofit and higher education, professional certification as a CFRE (certified fund raising executive) and impressive accomplishments in area of fundraising since coming to the shelter, his fundraising responsibilities are taken away and given to PP, someone who has absolutely no professional fundraising experience.
    11. This is a position that is not needed and filled by someone clearly not qualified. THIS IS THE CONVINCING FACTOR THAT PP WAS A POLITICAL HIRE…..PLAIN AND SIMPLE.
  13. December 2020 – Keeping in mind that LZ was let go due to “budgetary reasons”, TB struggles with paying over $11,000 more a year for payroll vendor, giving an undeserved $10,000 raise to an incompetent employee and doling out $107,000 for a new position that is clearly not needed. TB considers resigning but discovers widespread unrest among staff; begins informal discussions among key employees about what we feel we should/could do.
  14. December 31, 2020 – TB Googles employment attorneys and settles on Noble Law in NYC, paying $100 for a one-hour consultation; is assigned Cathryn Harris-Marchesi (CHM) – (516.382.7082; charris-marchesi@thenoblelaw.com). CHM recommends filing with NYS Division of Human Rights (DHR) due to sexual harassment and hate language; also recommends letter to NYS Dept of State, AG’s office due to alleged misappropriation of funds. Advises to put entire Board on notice ASAP in order to “protect” everyone’s job; informs us that if Board is notified that a NYS DHR filing is being considered/pending, they cannot discharge any involved employee as retaliation.
  15. January 3, 2021 – key employees….Chris Brown (shelter veterinarian), Mara Mittelstaedt (lead veterinary technician), Aaron Caraco (veterinary assistant), Janelle Harris (front desk supervisor), Ryan Scott (cruelty investigator/peace officer), Brittany Harrer (veterinary technician), Kimberly LaRussa (director, community engagement) and Tim Brennan (executive director) meet at TB’s house and draft letter to entire Board informing them that the employee group is considering a NYS DHR filing. Letter requests resignation of entire executive committee and states that if they do not resign, the group will file with NYS DHR and release an attached press release (employee letter and press release available as separate attachments). Letter is emailed to entire Board evening of 1/3/2021.
  16. January 3, 2021 – after receiving emailed letter from employees, Board VP Dominic Saraceno (DS) emails KL and TB threatening a lawsuit for defamation of character if press release is sent.
  17. January 4, 2021 – executive committee requests meeting with involved employees. Meeting takes place at 4PM that day and agreement is reached that all members of the executive committee will step down as officers of the Board and a new slate of officers will be elected at Board’s next scheduled meeting on 1/13/21 in exchange for employee group not releasing press release and not filing with NYS DHR. In hindsight, misunderstanding takes place here as expectation of employee group is that members of executive committee, SAE and board treasurer, LuAnne Brown (LB) will resign from THE BOARD, not just the executive committee. Board secretary, Jen Ruggiero (JR) expresses desire to stay on board to help with policy committee and DS refuses to resign. Employee group felt that SAE’s resignation from Board was the critical piece as her transgressions were most serious and was willing to compromise (in hindsight, employee group realizes this was a mistake).
  18. January 5, 2021 – TB has telephone call with Jen Ruggiero (JR) and another board member to plan agenda for board meeting on 1/13. TB is informed that employee group will be given first 30 minutes of meeting to present their concerns/issues/feelings. During phone call, board members inform TB that they do not know SAE’s intent – whether or not she will resign from the Board. I tell them both that this will be a hard sell to employee group as anger towards SAE is intense and consensus is that she needs to be off Board entirely. TB is asked to keep an open mind until they find out her intent.
  19. January 5, 2021 – When the employee group learned that SAE may or may not have any intention of resigning, the group reaffirmed that her resignation was non-negotiable. We then received an email from DS saying he went to the FBI earlier in the day, who is investigating. This was while we thought we were trying to have good faith discussions.
  20. January 8, 2021 – Employee group learned that three members of the executive committee resigned, including LuAnne Brown (LB), Jennifer Ruggiero (JR) and Susan Agnello-Eberwein (SAE); essentially all except for Dominic Saraceno (DS). Employee group also informed that Board would now be restructuring to find executive leadership positions for the interim. This was meant to only be temporary until the Board met on January 13th, at which point they would elect a new slate of officers for 2021.
  21. January 11, 2021 – Employee group is notified that new, interim executive committee had retained counsel, and shortly after that, that the executive committee had moved the board meeting from January 13th to January 20th with no reason why. This led employee group to retain their own counsel.

 

 


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