A former Florida Keys animal shelter operator has filed a breach-of-contract counter lawsuit against Monroe County, claiming the county used an audit to wrongly obtain $260,000 in funds in the group's bank accounts and to intentionally run the group out of business.
Stand Up for Animals Inc. (SUFA) filed the claim last week, arguing that the county treated the group differently in order to seize control of its bank accounts, run the group out of business and bring in another provider, said Paul Kunz, SUFA's attorney, and SUFA Director Linda Gottwald.
SUFA supplemented its $263,477 annual county contract with private donations.
The county sued SUFA, and Circuit Court Judge David Audlin ordered the nonprofit's bank accounts frozen in August 2010, after the Clerk of Court's Office released a scathing audit of the group.
The audit found Gottwald used money designated for the Middle Keys shelter both for a shelter she was starting in Michigan and for personal bills. Gottwald has refuted those claims.
"I think the audit was used to get at that money and end the contract," Gottwald said 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 they did. ... In the audit, they never interviewed me or my accountant, just shelter staff."
Gottwald contends that the shelter was audited annually by an independent auditor, and that the county previously audited the shelter twice. The county knew what fees it was charging and how it was running the shelter, she said.
"I believe the county wanted to get rid of SUFA in order to award contracts to political supporters and also because SUFA had raised questions (about) the distribution of the animal control portion of the budget of Public Works," Gottwald said.
The audit came after SUFA requested a 24 percent increase during contract renewal negotiations. County staff said the increase was unjustified, and recommended the County Commission reject SUFA's bid and seek new bids.
The county asked Audlin to freeze the funds after the audit indicated Gottwald spent shelter money for three months' rent for her home, which she sublet to interim Director Shari Blessing after Gottwald moved to Michigan.
The audit also stated that Gottwald spent $2,900 for a fence at the Second Chance Ranch in Michigan, $1,154 for a legal bill for the Michigan shelter, and $628 for six personal water bills.
Gottwald contends the money she spent on the Second Chance Ranch in Michigan was raised through outside donations -- not from Monroe County funds -- 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.
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. In April, SUFA filed a motion seeking $70,000 in lost revenue and attorney fees it suffered after Audlin froze the group's two bank accounts.