Gwinnett shelter probe finds no evidence of false euthanizations

This 2014 file photo shows a cat in a pen at the Gwinnett County animal shelter. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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

The investigation did, however, result in the firing of one shelter employee who, like the animal advocates whose complaints triggered the county probe, made allegations of wrongful euthanizations and fudged statistics.

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

That employee, former rescue coordinator Delana Funderburk, is threatening to sue the county over her termination.

The county dubbed her departure the result of “intentionally providing false information” and a failure to “support the [police] department and all members thereof.”

But, in a document sent this week to county officials, Funderburk’s attorney called it retaliation.

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

‘No evidence’

The Gwinnett County animal shelter has grown familiar with controversy in recent years.

In 2012, six shelter employees departed or were disciplined after investigators probed a so-called "culture of bigotry" at the facility. The same year, a county-appointed task force found that the shelter had a sky-high euthanasia rate.

In 2015, the shelter was shut down for weeks after an outbreak of disease and, less than two months ago, current shelter manager Curt Harrell was fined for ordering the euthanization of a court-protected dog.

The extensive internal affairs investigation that wrapped up this week began in October, after several shelter volunteers and rescue groups expressed concerns about the facility’s operations. It was conducted by the Gwinnett County Police Department which, until last month, ran the shelter.

The shelter is now under the umbrella of Gwinnett County’s community services department.

Chief among detractors' claims was that the shelter's administration — 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 advocates claimed that practice enabled shelter management to not include those animals in their overall euthanasia numbers, which are at historic lows.

But investigators reported finding no evidence of such tampering and determined that all euthanized animals — no matter the reason given for killing them — were included in shelter 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.

Any increase in aggression-related euthanizations is also not reflected in statistics obtained by the AJC.

Those records showed that, in 2016, the Gwinnett County animal shelter killed 158 animals after they were designated “aggressive towards animals” or “aggressive towards people.”

That’s less than the 271 “aggressive” animals euthanized in 2015. It’s also less than similar totals for 2014 (276), 2013 (307) and 2012 (561). Overall euthanizations at the shelter have gone from 3,238 in 2012 to 514 in 2016.

“We’ve got a very high adoption rate, we’ve got a low euthanasia rate,” Department of Community Services Director Tina Fleming told The AJC during an interview last month, before the investigation’s findings were released. “They’re doing their job and doing a good job.”

Not everyone agrees.

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

The internal affairs investigation, however, tied her termination not to that but to untruthful statements about an October Facebook post written by Chip Moore, a respected former shelter manager who had stepped down about a year prior.

The post, which encouraged advocates to protest shelter operations at an upcoming Board of Commissioners meeting, was written in a shelter-related Facebook group called “Save The Day.” Funderburk’s name was among those who had previously posted in the group, documents said.

When interviewed by 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 investigators Funderburk said she felt that Harrell and Wiemann were “trying to get rid of her.” She also claimed animals were being labeled aggressive “just for the purpose of euthanizing them.”

The three-page, lawsuit-threatening document filed this week by Funderburk’s attorney, known as an ante litem notice, claims 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.”

The document, which Gwinnett County and the police department declined to comment on, suggests a $1 million settlement.

‘A good fit’

While that looms in the background, the animal shelter is in the process of placing its operations under the supervision of the county’s Department of Community Services.

The move is largely clerical, and shelter leadership and staff will remain in place. Harrell and Fleming said moving to community services will help the shelter take better advantage of the large stable of volunteers that the department already has.

Harrell scoffed at the suggestion that tensions among volunteers have been widespread in the past, but at least four have been dismissed since last fall. Several participated in the recent internal affairs probe, claiming they, like Funderburk, were let go because they tried to raise red flags.

“It’s because we care, we spoke up,” one of those ex-volunteers, Mona Stephens said.

“If we see something, we say something, we’re out,” said another, Jan Grissom.

Multiple shelter employees told internal affairs investigators that, from their perspective, volunteers regularly overstepped their boundaries. Harrell said the shelter would be “impossible” to run without volunteers, but said it’s “like any other organization.”

“You have rules and regulations you have to abide by, and if those are violated it may not be a good fit,” he told The AJC.

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