As Rescued Pets Movement Fights Insolvency, the City Fights Transparency
A recent batch of RPM fosters on the way to a new home (hopefully).
Screenshot, RPM Facebook
As a city contractor that transports animals from Houston's overcrowded pound out of state slouches toward insolvency, city officials are still blocking efforts for a full accounting of what happens to the animals it delivers to rescue groups as far away as Toronto.
Houston City Council in 2014 approved a two-year, $2.16 million contract with Rescued Pets Movement, which is credited in city contract documents as mounting "heroic efforts" to achieve "an all-time shelter live release record" by ostensibly finding foster or permanent homes for thousands of animals pulled from BARC.
But the city funding covers only a third of RPM's costs — or only $75 of the $225 needed to care for each animal pulled and transported, according to an April 2 email from RPM's leadership. (A city contract addendum from April 2015 pegs the shipping cost at $160).
While the city's 2015 contract calls for RPM to transport at least 4,680 animals a year (or 390 a month), the group's recent emails state that it will only be able to handle between 80 and 98 animals per month. The contract expires in June. (An April 27 email states that RPM raised enough money to pull more than 400 animals this month).
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"If RPM does not immediately reorganize, create a better business plan, and reduce our expenses while increasing donations, we will be forced to shut down operations completely," an RPM email states.
"That is 20,000+ lives lost."
The email states that RPM grew too fast to cover the cost of its transport vans and Heights animal clinic and boarding facility. That building was purchased with a $500,000 loan by the father of co-founder Cindi Perini, according to tax records; RPM also received additional funds from a donation of an undisclosed amount by Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander.
An April email from Perini, co-founder Laura Carlock and three board members explains:
"We kept hoping the funding would catch up to our costs, but it didn't, and the reality is that RPM is insolvent. And while we know many third parties think RPM is a wealthy organization because of our fast growth and new clinic, the reality is that we owe approximately $1 million to our creditors, including our mortgage lender, and we are no longer able to meet all of our monthly operation costs and fund our significant staff requirements."
City officials say the group has found homes for roughly 7,000 animals, but finding the names of the organizations that receive the animals has been difficult, as we reported last year. Greg Damianoff, BARC's director, and other city officials seem to focus only on the fact that animals have been removed from the shelter at a steady clip, and seem less concerned on tracking the animals' ultimate outcomes.
The only audit information that's been made publicly available is a review of a "statistically valid sample of 356 animals" that consists of a single pie chart and a claim that 92.4 percent of the animals "have either been adopted, are currently awaiting adoption, or undergoing medical treatment," according to an email from the city's Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees BARC.
It's unclear how the city arrived at this figure, since Damianoff told the Houston Press, "The ultimate outcome is not something that we require them to track, nor can we track, but we do do an audit."
In February, local no-kill shelter advocate Bett Sundermeyer — sort of a professional thorn in the side of BARC — filed a public information request for the underlying documents used in the audit. She received a response saying the city would seek an Attorney General's opinion on whether the city could withhold RPM's "proprietary" information.
Unfortunately for the city, lawyers neglected to seek an opinion on time. On April 21, Assistant City Attorney Tiffany Evans notified the AG's Office, stating that while the city missed the statutorily imposed deadline to seek approval to withhold information, it would still seek to suppress the information.
When Sundermeyer told the Houston Press that City Councilman Greg Travis seemed concerned about the lack of transparency, we decided to reach out to Travis as well. He told us that he believed RPM's out-of-state and out-of-country partnerships should be made public, and it was only after we began copying Travis on public records requests to the city that we got a positive response.
When we told Travis that the city was still seeking to block the release of the audit information, even though city lawyers missed the deadline, he expressed frustration: "That's bull...We're not talking about CIA secrecies or national defense..." Travis said his office would seek the audit information.
Because neither BARC nor RPM tracks animals once they're dropped off, the only way to learn ultimate outcomes is from the partner rescue organizations. But it's impossible to reach out to those organizations when the city does not make the information easily available. After Travis's office asked for this information on April 14, the Press filed a public records request for the same information, which was made available April 25 for a mere $124. Apparently, BARC does not keep the information for a $2.16 million contract in any sort of convenient file, because we received 520 pieces of paper containing the names of animals and the (sometimes partial or abbreviated) names of rescue organizations, sans address or any other sort of background information on each group.
The city's reluctance to release information is especially puzzling given the fact that some of the partner rescues have real success stories. Lisa Pedersen of Colorado's Boulder Valley Humane Society told us that her organization was able to adopt out 487 of 491 animals received from RPM in 2015. (Three were euthanized; one senior dog was transferred to a rescue that specializes in geriatric animals).
The city offers this meticulous, thorough audit of a multimillion contract "in the interest of transparency."
City of Houston
The problem is that the rescues seem wildly divergent in experience and quality. Rescued Pets Movement transferred 44 dogs to a woman in Aurora named Kari Ault, who runs a foster-based dog rescue as part of her Yin Yang behavioral therapy service for dogs. According to the Yin Yang website, Ault "has been working with dogs for the better part of 15 years."
However, this does not seem to be the case. According to the Denver County District Attorney's Office, Ault pleaded guilty to a felony theft charge in 2004, after it was determined she forged thousands of dollars of checks from the consulting firm where she worked from 2000 to 2003. In exchange for the DA's dismissal of two more serious charges, Ault agreed to pay $116,000 in restitution and was sentenced to five years in "community corrections," which a spokesperson for the Denver County DA's Office described as less restrictive than prison — most often a halfway house.
Unfortunately, Ault failed to stick to the terms of her supervision and in 2007 was ordered to serve the remainder of her sentence in prison, according to the DA's office. She was released in 2010 and paroled until October 2012, according to a Colorado Department of Corrections spokesperson.
According to Yin Yang's website, which was taken down after the Press spoke with Ault, the company's co-founder "has been working with dogs for the past several years." But Colorado Secretary of State records show that the co-founder only registered Yin Yang in June 2015, shortly before RPM began shipping dogs there. In a 2010 bankruptcy filing, the co-founder listed his occupation as waiter at a seafood restaurant.
Colorado Secretary of State records also show that Ault incorporated her first dog-related business, Tao of the Dog, in 2012, a year after filing paperwork for a housekeeping company called At Your Service, Ltd., which was to operate under different names, including Gleam, and Sweeping Beauty. Those businesses do not appear to have gotten off the ground.
Ault told the Press that she has worked with dogs for 16 years.
"I'm a behaviorist...I have an animal sciences degree," Ault told us. She said she received her degree from Midwest Animal Science Center, which she said is now defunct.
Ault denied that she was in prison at any time during her alleged 16 years working with dogs, saying that she was only in a "facility." She declined to answer questions about her check forging and her office employment from 2000 to 2003 before she hung up.
Apparently, Damianoff and RPM want us to take the word of an ex-con with no discernible rescue experience, who removed her website after a question about her prison term. We think the public deserves more.
The public also needs to know the disposition of BARC dogs that wind up on Denver-area Craigslist ads, with pleas for fosters — a puzzling development, given the city's insistence that RPM only delivers animals to organizations that already have adopters or fosters in place.
We emailed RPM co-founders Perini and Carlock, asking for their opinion on RPM's "proprietary" audit information, and whether they believe the public does not have a right to a full accounting. They did not respond.
It's not surprising, given the co-founders' preference for image over candidness. In 2004, when Press Editor Margaret Downing investigated and wrote about a troubled dog rescue called Mr. K's, Carlock contacted Downing with her concern that the Press was running a negative story.
"They're well fed whether they stand in muck or not," Carlock was quoted as saying. "They're well cared for."
In a subsequent email to Mr. K supporters, Carlock wrote, "Now, trust me, Mr. K's is not somewhere that I would send my beloved animals. And you would not want to send yours there either....But whether we would send our personal pets to Mr. K's is not the relevant question or the appropriate standard for a shelter that runs strictly on donations."
It's remarkably telling, given that RPM is funded largely through donations.
Ultimately, organizations like Boulder Valley Humane Society show they have the resources and desire to successfully find homes for many Houston animals. If city officials are for some reason unable to tackle the root of Houston's animal overpopulation problem, then there is nothing wrong with pursuing alternative means, even if they're just Band-Aid approaches. But we believe the public deserves to know where the animals are going, what their ultimate fates are and what is being done to check the backgrounds of the people we're entrusting these vulnerable animals to.
We wish city officials felt the same way.