MARATHON -- A former Florida Keys animal shelter provider has filed a breach of contract counter lawsuit against Monroe County, claiming the county used an audit to wrongly seize $260,000 from the group's bank accounts and intentionally run it out of business.
Stand Up for Animals Inc., which filed the suit last week, is seeking more than $100,000 in damages, according to SUFA attorney Paul Kunz and SUFA director Linda Gottwald.
The county successfully lobbied Circuit Court Judge David Audlin to seize the nonprofit's bank accounts in August 2010, after the Clerk of Court's Office released a scathing audit of the group, which had a contract with the county to perform animal control services. SUFA supplemented its $263,477 annual county contract with private donations.
The audit found Gottwald used money designated for the Middle Keys shelter for a shelter she was starting in Michigan and on personal bills. Gottwald has refuted all of those claims.
"I think the audit was used to get at that money and end the contract," Gottwald told the Free Press Monday. "The audit way overstepped its boundaries. We had nothing to hide. We gave them everything they wanted. They did not have the right to audit a private business the way it did. ... In the audit, they never interviewed me or my accountant, just shelter staff."
Gottwald contends that the shelter had an independent auditor review the shelter's books every year. The county previously audited the shelter twice and knew what fees it was charging and how it was running the shelter, Gottwald said.
This is the second time in recent months that SUFA has gone after the county for money. In April, SUFA filed a motion seeking $70,000 in lost revenue and attorney fees after Audlin seized the group's two bank accounts. The 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled in September 2011 that the county had wrongfully seized SUFA's accounts and ordered that the funds be released back to the group.
The audit came after SUFA was in contract negotiations with the county and SUFA requested a 24 percent increase in June 2010, when its contract renewal was being negotiated, which would have brought the annual contract amount to $327,000.
County staff said the increase was unjustified and recommended the County Commission reject SUFA's bid -- the lone bid -- and seek new ones. The County Commission gave SUFA a three-month contract extension so staff could negotiate a better deal.
The county asked Audlin to freeze the funds after the county clerk's audit stated Gottwald had spent shelter money for three months' rent for her home, which she sublet to interim successor Shari Blessing after Gottwald moved to Michigan.
The audit also stated that Gottwald spent $2,900 for a fence at her Second Chance Ranch in Michigan and $1,154 for a legal bill for the Michigan shelter. The audit also alleged she spent $628 for six personal water bills.
Gottwald and her attorney have refuted the findings in the audit. Gottwald contends the money she spent on the Second Chance Ranch in Michigan was raised through outside donations -- not from Monroe County -- and the $628 she used to pay for her personal water bills was a clerical error that since has been rectified.
Other allegations, Gottwald contends, are the product of an overly aggressive audit and a county-orchestrated media campaign amid contract negotiations, she told the Free Press.