Probe into Gwinnett animal shelter done; fired worker threatens suit

This 2014 file photo shows a dog in a pen at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A months-long internal investigation into operations at the Gwinnett County animal shelter found no wrongdoing or violations of policy, according to documents obtained this week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The investigation did, however, result in the firing of one shelter employee who was beloved by the animal advocates whose complaints triggered the probe. And that employee, now-former rescue coordinator Delana Funderburk, is threatening legal action against the county.

The internal affairs investigation into the animal shelter's operations began in October and was conducted by the Gwinnett County Police Department. The shelter was under police oversight from 1993 until last month, when it moved under the umbrella of the county's community services department.

The probe was initiated after several shelter volunteers and rescue groups expressed concerns about the facility's operations. Chief among the claims was that the shelter's administration — manager Curt Harrell and assistant manager Cindy Wiemann, who were hired in March 2016 — were manipulating euthanasia numbers by marking adoptable animals as "sick" or "aggressive" to justify killing them.

Some volunteers claimed that practice enabled shelter management to not include those animals in their overall euthanasia numbers, which are at historic lows.

The internal affairs investigators, however, found no evidence of such tampering and said that all euthanized animals — no matter the reason given for killing them —were included in statistics.

“No evidence was ever found by [investigators] and no evidence was provided by those making these accusations to support the allegation of non-aggressive animals being falsely changed to aggressive for the purpose of euthanizing them,” the internal affairs report said.

Funderburk, who was fired in February after about three years as the shelter’s rescue coordinator, was among those who claimed such activity was going on.

An offshoot of the larger internal affairs investigation accused her of “intentionally providing false information” and for a failure to “support the [police] department and all members thereof,” tying her subsequent termination to an October Facebook post written by Chip Moore, a former shelter manager who had stepped down about a year earlier.

The post — which encouraged advocates to go to an upcoming Board of Commissioners meeting and create “a massive explosion of media and commission attention” regarding the shelter — was written in a group called “Save The Day.” Funderburk’s name was among those who had previously posted in the group, documents said.

Channel 2's Tony Thomas says officials told him the shelter is run now better than ever.

When interviewed by IA investigators, Funderburk reportedly lied and told investigators she hadn’t seen Moore’s post. Her termination was based on the fact that she didn’t alert her supervisors to the potential protests, according to documents.

But in her interview with IA, Funderburk, who had already been reassigned to “light duty” after having surgery on her hand — despite her assertions that she could continue to do her job — said she felt that Harrell and Wiemann were “trying to get rid of her.”

She also claimed animals were being labeled “aggressive” and euthanized merely to make more room at the shelter.

“In fact,” Funderburk told investigators, “they were being changed from available for adoption to aggressive, so they could euthanize them and keep stats.”

An investigator asked her to clarify if she was suggesting that animals that were not aggressive were being labeled as such “just for the purpose of euthanizing them.”

“Yes,” Funderburk replied.

A document filed this week by Funderburk’s attorney claimed that it was those statements that led to her firing. It claims Funderburk was terminated as retaliation for her efforts to blow the whistle “on administrative corruption and unethical behavior leading to the unnecessary killing of animals, an abuse of euthanasia against innocent animals and an effort to stifle transparency” at the shelter.

The three-page, lawsuit-threatening document, known as an ante litem notice, suggests a $1 million settlement.

“The only consideration Police Chief [Butch] Ayers made in terminating Ms. Funderburk was to silence her efforts as a whistleblower,” Funderburk’s attorney, Mike Puglise, wrote.

The county and the police department declined Wednesday to comment on the ante litem notice.

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