WilCo Animal Advocates Hire Bulldog Attorney
Attorney Bill Aleshire hired to press for more vigor in Sheriff's Office animal cruelty and neglect investigation into Williamson County Regional Shelter
Defenders of an increasing number of unfortunate critters at the problem-plagued Williamson Co. Regional Animal Shelter in Georgetown have hired Austin lawyer and former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire to press for a more vigorous investigation into allegations of animal cruelty and neglect.
Animal welfare advocates turned to Aleshire, a longtime "good government" rabble rouser, after Williamson Co. attorney Jana Duty transferred the investigation from a constable's office to the sheriff's office. The probe was initially launched out of Precinct 1 Constable Gary Griffin's office, based on a police report stating that conditions at the shelter warranted an investigation. Aleshire's clients suspect a "cover-up of evidence," according to a July 13 public-information request Aleshire filed on their behalf with WilCo officials. (To download a PDF of the complete open records letter, see the sidebar below.) As Aleshire told the Chronicle, "We have reason to be concerned whether the investigation, so far, meets the criteria of fair, professional, and thorough. We will make sure that records critical to the investigation are preserved by the county."
While Aleshire also represents Griffin in an unrelated lawsuit pending against the county, he said his animal-advocate clients were referred to his firm by the president of the Texas Humane Societies, Patt Nordyke, for whom the firm, Riggs & Aleshire P.C., has done some pro bono work in the past. "Our clients were not aware that we represented Constable Griffin until we told them," Aleshire said.
In filing the records request, Aleshire seeks to obtain copies of all correspondence relating to the shelter scandal, as well as audio and video surveillance tapes from the shelter. The request also seeks a missing county camera that volunteers say contained images of sick animals, including a pregnant Chihuahua that died uneuthanized, apparently from complications stemming from the pregnancy. Copies of the request were sent to shelter interim director Dana Boehm (filling the post of former director Melanie Sobel, who left office June 1), WilCo Sheriff James Wilson, County Judge Dan Gattis, and county commissioners Lisa Birkman, Cynthia Long, Valerie Covey, and Ron Morrison.
Aleshire's letter to county officials also explains his motive for filing the public-information request. "If the sheriff's office is conducting an actual criminal investigation, we understand that could affect whether Williamson County is required to disclose some of the requested records to us at this time," the letter states. "On the other hand, if there is no actual criminal investigation under way, we maintain that we are entitled to prompt disclosure of all of these records."
County officials did not respond to requests to comment on the ongoing controversy, but Public Information Officer Connie Watson, in an e-mail response, defended the shelter operations, saying the facility "follows all state requirements in the care of its animals. The staff of the shelter takes great pride in their work and shows great concern for the animals' overall welfare." Public outcries over the shelter's conditions erupted in mid-June three weeks after Sobel's resignation when reports surfaced that the multimillion-dollar animal shelter was allegedly failing to safely and humanely care for stray dogs and cats. Initially billed as a regional facility that would seem more like a pet store than a pound, the new shelter now carries the reputation of a dirty, disease-infested, last-ditch dungeon for strays. Photographs taken by volunteer Lori Rogowski, especially one of a dead blue-eyed cat in a blue box next to a splotch of excrement, have served to reinforce activists' complaints. "I must say that the picture the Chronicle ran of that little kitty last week ["Dying Alone in Williamson County," July 6] brought tears to the eyes of even us mean ol' attorneys," Aleshire said. "I cannot imagine the breach of human decency, let alone violation of legal responsibilities, that could lead someone to let that happen, not once, but over and over."
The situation turned even stickier last week with the abrupt firing of shelter vet tech and staff supervisor Kathy Lopez (Abdella), a vocal critic of the shelter's practices. While making her rounds at the shelter July 12, Lopez said she came across a parvo-infected dog languishing in its own waste and vomit. She summoned two animal-control officers on duty, but no one was able to access the "drug drawer" containing euthanasia fluid because the locks had been changed. "I was told the dog should have been euthanized yesterday," Lopez recalled of the incident. "It was inhumane." Not only that, Lopez said she saw as many as 19 cages that were piling up in the un-air-conditioned sally port an area where impounded animals are dropped off two times the recommended number of sick animals in quarantine.
When volunteer Rogowski called WilCo Capt. Richard Blake to report the dog's illness, along with overall conditions at the shelter, he told her he could not take any more of her "hysterical calls," Rogowski said. Tempers boiled over around midday, Lopez said, when interim director Boehm chastised her about working too many hours. "I've never gotten mad at her, but we told her I wouldn't have to be doing this if we hadn't become fucking animal hoarders," she said. It was shortly after that discussion, Lopez continued, when Boehm confiscated her keys, security card, and badge and escorted her out of the building.
Lopez said she called 911 later that afternoon to report the worsening conditions at the shelter, and within the hour, Capt. Shawn Newsom, a brother of shelter worker Jack Shannon Newsom, called her and reportedly insisted his officers had seen no evidence of cruelty or neglect.
Aleshire believes serious conflicts of interest are clouding the county's ability to investigate and resolve the shelter's problems. For one, Boehm is the niece of former County Commissioner Frankie Limmer (who was no stranger to conflict-of-interest charges during his tenure), and Newsom's phone call to Lopez may have compounded the nepotism conflicts, Aleshire said. "Having Captain Newsom directly involved in the investigation of the shelter is an obvious conflict of interest, considering that his brother works there," he said.
It should also be noted that Lopez was fired two days after a July 14 Statesman story quoted her saying she feared that mass euthanasia would soon be the county's only recourse. Lopez said she received no advanced warning that her job was in jeopardy, although in a memo given to her at the time of her dismissal, Boehm stated Lopez was fired because she had "created a disruption in the workplace as well as a hostile environment for me."
"I wish those animal-control officers would come forward and tell what they see," Lopez said. "But they're probably afraid." (Shelter officials could not be reached at press time because the shelter's voice mailbox was full.)
If that's the case, such punitive measures are doing nothing to stem the tide of lost or unwanted animals pouring into the shelter by the day. According to eyewitnesses, including Lopez, cages are routinely stacked in the un-air-conditioned sally port, hallways, offices, and bathrooms. Sick and healthy animals have more than nose-to-nose contact they practically live on top of one another. According to Rogowski and others, coughing cats with noses dripping green puss sit in glass cages on view for potential adopters, but go ignored by officials passing by. Moreover, they say, dogs sleep in the same cramped crates where they relieve themselves, which is altogether contrary to the nature of canines. Some dogs may go "cage crazy," becoming vicious enough to "bite your face," Lopez said.
It's uncertain how county and city officials will move toward resolving the controversy. At a July 12 meeting of the Round Rock City Council, Assistant City Manager David Kautz admitted the facility had a "rough beginning" marked by "instability" but that the problems are "solvable." Meanwhile, the prevailing tendency is to publicly fault former shelter director Sobel, while heaping praise on interim director Boehm. At last week's council meeting, for example, Council Member Joe Clifford took a verbal swipe at Sobel, claiming she was slow to get the facility up and running.
"It is amazing that no one involved in this project has any knowledge or experience in shelter management," Sobel told the Chronicle, possibly pinpointing a more plausible reason for the shelter fiasco. Nevertheless, at last week's council meeting, officials announced their intention to conduct a "nationwide search" to hire the "best pro" in the country to take the reins of the shelter. But with all the bad publicity, it's questionable whether even the "best pro" would want to accept the job. Maybe the county will just have to hire another family member.