The upheaval at the city of Albuquerque’s Animal Welfare agency continues with the departure of a controversial department director who reportedly advocated “live exits” of shelter animals over public safety.
Paul Caster, who was hired under former Mayor Richard Berry, left his $102,643-a-year job after two years as a top executive of the 140-employee animal welfare agency that has been rocked in recent years by reports that top management was allowing potentially dangerous shelter dogs to be adopted out to the public.
Caster replaced embattled director Barbara Bruin in November 2015. This year, he was the subject of two internal city inquiries in which he was accused of subverting agency reforms and ignoring policies enacted to protect the public.
He was also accused of lashing out at agency employees and in recent months fired, disciplined and demoted several top-level staff. Two of them filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city on Sept. 27, contending they were demoted for speaking out about malfeasance within the department.
One of the two is an animal behaviorist whose predecessor in 2015 helped expose the agency’s potentially dangerous adoption practices.
Over the past year, city administrators defended Caster’s performance and contended he was working to improve the department, which has an $11 million annual budget.
Caster, who couldn’t be reached Tuesday, had no prior experience in running a major metropolitan animal welfare agency when he was tapped to head the department, initially as a deputy director in 2015.
Caster did have prior experience organizing volunteers at the city’s Animal Welfare Department and had been involved in private animal refuge organizations. Last year, Caster helped hire an animal rights colleague from Colorado as associate director of the department. Deb Brinkley’s position is classified, and she remains on the job.
Brinkley earlier this year shocked some within the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department when she acknowledged that her Colorado animal sanctuary saved a 120-pound mastiff named Onion that had mauled a 1-year-old Nevada child to death in 2012.
City investigators also noted that Brinkley had a “frequent habit of blaming victims for dog bites.” Brinkley couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Caster sent a resignation letter to Berry on Nov. 30, the former mayor’s last day in office, according to Mayor Tim Keller’s deputy chief of staff, Justine Freeman.
There has been no immediate replacement named for Caster.
Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael is overseeing the department in the interim, Freeman said.
Caster’s hiring came in the fall of 2015 during what the city administration described as a “management realignment” in which then-director Bruin stepped down to work in a newly created “advisor” position.
Bruin, who ultimately resigned from the agency in 2016, had faced harsh criticism that she permitted potentially dangerous dogs to be adopted and sided with volunteers in the department over professional staff. She contended there was no danger to the public.
The city announced it would conduct a national search for a new director. But that never happened and Caster moved into the job in 2016.
Caster, according to a résumé, joined the city after a 14-year career with the U.S. Air Force Office of Aerospace Studies, where he was a senior analyst and a research analyst.
Prior to that, Caster spent about 20 years with the U.S. Army, where he worked at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, serving as deputy director from 1991 to 1993, among various jobs.
In the whistleblower lawsuit filed against the city on Sept. 27, Joel Craig, the department’s operations manager, and Sarah Wharton, an animal behaviorist, contend they were retaliated against for making “reports to various executives at the City” about what they considered was the “unlawful” conduct of Caster and Brinkley. They also accused them of malfeasance in public office, the lawsuit alleges.
According to the lawsuit, they signed a “letter of concern” to the city’s Inspector General in April complaining about the failure of the Animal Welfare Department to implement changes recommended by an internal city team to address the adoption of dogs who exhibited signs of being dangerous.
“In retaliation for their reports,” the lawsuit alleges, “the City demoted Plaintiffs, reduced their salary and reduced their job responsibilities.” Wharton was subjected to further retaliation, the lawsuit adds, when the city imposed a three-day-suspension without pay. That was converted to a paid working suspension after Wharton’s lawyer wrote a letter demanding the city revoke the suspension.
The agency has been found by a city hearing officer to “have retaliated against other AWD (Animal Welfare Department) employees who made reports of malfeasance to the Inspector General relating to the same subject matter,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, which was filed by attorney Michael Cadigan, states the two plaintiffs’ reports related to “matters of public concern, including the safety of families who adopt dogs and the safety of other dogs and kennel workers.”
The city, in an answer filed in court, contended “retaliation was not a motivating factor” and that there were “legitimate business purposes for its actions.”
According to the OIG report released last summer, various department employees contended Caster disregarded new reforms enacted and overruled Animal Welfare staff decisions in order to keep “unadoptable dogs from being euthanized.”
In a startling admission to one city investigator who asked what Caster valued more – live animal exits or public safety – Caster “clearly stated that it was live exits,” the report stated. Of 16,137 animals placed at city shelters in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, about 1,553 were euthanized.