Kane In Your Corner: NJSCPA refusing to show invoices for legal fees

The NJSCPA is refusing to show invoices for legal fees The NJSCPA is refusing to show invoices for legal fees

New Jersey’s top animal law enforcement group, the NJ Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has been racking up legal fees -- averaging nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year. But the group refuses to let people, including some of its own trustees, see exactly where the money goes, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds.

The NJSPCA serves as New Jersey’s animal police, but is funded largely by public donations. Tax returns, which the group recently filed for the first time in four years, show the agency used a lot of that donated money in legal fees; nearly $720,000 from 2013-2015 alone was spent with its attorney, Harry Levin of Toms River.

Collene Wronko, head of an animal reform group, was stunned when she heard the figure from News 12 New Jersey. “That’s insane,” Wronko said.  “For what?”

That’s a question that is difficult to answer, because the NJSPCA refuses to provide any documentation pertaining to the legal expenses. Under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, Kane In Your Corner requested copies of invoices, or other legal billing records, but the NJSPCA issued a pair of denials, citing wildly contradictory reasons. The first letter claimed the agency would not release the documents because they were covered by attorney-client privilege. When Kane In Your Corner pointed out the New Jersey Government Records Council had specifically determined otherwise, the organization then sent a second letter, claiming no documents existed. 

Daniel Borochoff, president of the national watchdog group, Charity Watch, says the legal bills comprise “a major part of (the) total spending” of the NJSPCA, which makes the lack of invoices troubling. “There’s got to be invoices. If there’s not, it’s even worse because it shows incompetence and an inability to property account for this money,” Borochoff says.

The NJSPCA declined to be interviewed, so Kane In Your Corner went to the agency’s Board of Trustees meeting in Clifton last week, to publicly question the group about the high legal fees, and whether invoices existed or not. “How could this organization accrue that kind of legal bill with no invoice, and without a single record of any kind?” News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane asked. The agency did not answer. NJSPCA Vice President Larry Donato simply relied “Thank you for your questions and we’ll pass them on to the president.” 

NJSPCA spokesman Matthew Stanton later insisted the agency was being truthful in denying the existence of the invoices, saying the organization’s former treasurer, Frank Rizzo, threw them away. 

Emails show even some members of the NJSPCA’s board of trustees have been rebuffed when seeking legal billing records. In October 2015, then NJSPCA Trustee Phil Amato, now the group’s treasurer, emailed Levin seeking a breakdown of legal bills on a case-by case basis. “If I have to OPRA Request this myself, I will do so,” Amato wrote. Levin refused to provide the information, adding “Are you kidding? You threaten to file an OPRA request? Whose side are you on?” 

In a bizarre twist, Levin also emailed Amato that he should simply ask the NJSPCA’s president to let him review the invoices which his office sent on a regular basis. “All the information you seek is at headquarters,” Levin wrote. Those invoices are among the same ones the NJSPCA now says do not exist.

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