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Former employee sues Albuquerque Animal Welfare

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A former coordinator for volunteers and foster care at the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department has filed a lawsuit alleging she was fired last fall in retaliation for blowing the whistle on a top agency official’s practice of sending highly adoptable dogs to unlicensed, illegal shelters in Colorado for a profit.

The lawsuit filed by Joan “Bet” Lotosky comes at a time when the city is preparing to settle a whistleblower case filed six months ago by two other top Animal Welfare officials.

The 140-employee department, which is under new management with the election of Mayor Tim Keller, has endured several years of controversy over top managers’ decisions on whether to adopt potentially dangerous dogs to the public and other practices.

More recently, the actions of the agency’s assistant director have come under scrutiny. Deb Brinkley was placed on administrative leave after revelations surfaced that she cherry-picked adoptable dogs, including puppies, from the city shelters for transfer to her private animal rescue. The rescue sold puppies for $250 when the city of Albuquerque was charging $80.

In the whistleblower lawsuit filed last September, Animal Welfare operations manager Joel Craig and Sarah Wharton, an animal behaviorist, alleged that they were demoted and their salaries and job responsibilities reduced after they filed complaints about mismanagement and abuse of authority with the city’s Office of Inspector General.

Lotosky’s attorney, Michael Cadigan, represents all three plaintiffs. He told the Journal on Thursday that the earlier lawsuit is “close to being settled.”

City officials in that case have denied the whistleblower allegations in court records, saying that there were legitimate business reasons for the actions taken involving Craig and Wharton. There’s been no response from the city yet in Lotosky’s case, which was filed March 20.

Lotosky’s lawsuit alleges that she made reports over a span of several months to the OIG and other executives of then-Mayor Richard Berry’s administration about then-director Paul Caster and assistant director Brinkley.

Specifically, Lotosky said she complained about the transfers of highly adoptable dogs.

Once Caster and Brinkley learned she had made reports that they were “engaging in conduct that was unlawful and constituted malfeasance in public office,” Lotosky was put on unpaid suspension, her lawsuit states.

When her attorney threatened to bring a civil action against the city, the department rescinded the financial portion of the suspension, the lawsuit stated. And Lotosky, the lawsuit states, continued her participation in the city’s investigation of the “illegal activities.”

Caster meanwhile imposed unreasonable scrutiny on her work and made unreasonable demands of her, her lawsuit alleges.

But just as Keller was preparing to take office, Caster fired Lotosky on Nov. 17. Caster himself left on Nov. 30. Neither Caster nor Brinkley could be reached for comment Thursday.

An investigative report released by the city’s Inspector General in late February found that Brinkley abused her position by circumventing department processes and had a conflict of interest.

Brinkley, hired in late 2016, was placed on paid administrative leave on Jan. 29 amid a separate investigation by the city. Her attorney has said she did nothing wrong and the transfers were above board.

The report of the investigation by Inspector General David Harper confirmed allegations that Brinkley inappropriately took puppies and transferred them to her own rescue operation and failed to comply with Colorado and Valencia County law.

Harper reported that 29 dogs were transferred to DMK Rehoming in Aurora, Colo., during Brinkley’s tenure at the city – half of which were puppies – and “a few were already in the process of going to citizens who had requested the dogs.”

Without naming Lotosky, the OIG report stated that an employee who oversaw the fostering process was interviewed for the investigation and reported that Brinkley did not follow procedures when she pulled dogs out.

The employee said Brinkley never communicated which animals she was interested in fostering or filled out appropriate paperwork before taking several puppies that ultimately ended up at Brinkley’s rescue operation.

The OIG did not determine whether Brinkley was making a profit off the transferred animals, but Brinkley said in an interview with OIG that all income went toward the rescue operation.

In 2016, the city paid more than $15,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Animal Welfare program analyst Jim Ludwick, after the city failed to provide him the findings of an internal investigation into allegations that the city was permitting aggressive and potentially dangerous dogs to be adopted from its shelters.

Ludwick and animal behavior specialist Carolyn Hildalgo, who has since left the agency, helped trigger an internal city investigation after he complained to the city’s Office of Inspector General in March 2015 that he believed public safety was at risk due to the shelters’ practices of adopting out dogs known to have failed aggression tests or either attacked humans or killed other family pets.

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