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Lauded Animal Welfare Department volunteer terminated

Robert Candelaria holds Patch outside his West Side home in November. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Robert Candelaria’s time as a volunteer for the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department earned him statewide recognition in January after he made headlines for adopting the dog of a dying veteran.

But behind the scenes, Candelaria earned something else: the ire of co-workers who felt the way he went about trying to help animals was “hugely problematic” to the point of negatively representing the department, according to a recently released report by the city inspector general.

Staffers told investigators that even after months of complaints, counseling and a brief suspension, management hesitated to terminate Candelaria because it would have “bad optics.”

“During the course of the investigation, numerous staff and other volunteers detailed negative and threatening experiences with the subject and expressed their frustration with management for not addressing,” the OIG report says. “Based on these reviews, it was clearly demonstrated that the subject volunteer has violated the volunteer training and manual.”

The department denied the Journal an interview with Director Carolyn Ortega, saying she has not been in the position for long. But Ortega, in response to emailed questions, said she personally terminated Candelaria in June, a month before the IG report was released.

The Candelaria matter is just one of three Animal Welfare-centered investigations the Office of Inspector General has completed in the past year. The others found evidence of collusion in outside contracting and hundreds of animals unaccounted for in the department’s record system, despite Mayor Tim Keller routinely touting improvements at the long-beleaguered department and saying in May that it was in a “good place,” having gone through a significant turnaround.

A spokeswoman for Keller said fixing “one of the most historically broken departments will never be without bumps along the way.”

“Given the state that Animal Welfare Department was in when we took office, it has absolutely taken a 180-degree turn,” Jessica Campbell said, adding that staffing and euthanasia rates have improved and that the department has addressed many backlogged calls.

According to the OIG report, which doesn’t identify Candelaria by name, the complaints claimed the volunteer overstepped his bounds by bullying handlers, guilt-tripped prospective adopters, fired back at management and, without approval, fostered a paralytic dog that later drowned in his pool. The OIG also found that the department had never obtained Candelaria’s signature on liability or code of conduct waivers, which lay out the rules he is accused of breaking, and that he did not take the required training for adoption counseling.

Candelaria told the Journal that he was defiant when it came to euthanasia but that he never threatened anyone or raised his voice.

“I was hard on them euthanizing dogs, without question. I fully admit that, but the whole intent was to be a voice for those that didn’t have a voice,” he said. “I stood up and I challenged them, and I put them to shame every time, and they didn’t like that.”

Candelaria said he got in the department’s way by questioning behaviorists and using loopholes to find homes for dogs deemed “unadoptable” by AWD.

Multiple people who worked with Candelaria describe him to the Journal as someone with a good heart who made some enemies with his antics but saved many dogs initially scheduled for euthanasia.

In October, Candelaria said, then-Director Danny Nevarez called him into his office and told him to “tone it down” and had him take a few weeks off.

Since then, he said, officials never mentioned his behavior until his termination as a volunteer.

“I was advocating and going the extra mile – and if I had to do it all over again and it was going to save a pup, I would do it all over again,” he said. “I don’t think it was wrong at all.”

Complaints were already mounting in November when AWD thrust Candelaria into the public eye when he adopted Patch, a 5-year-old Yorkie terrier, after his owner, veteran John Vincent, was placed into hospice care.

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham presented Journal Spirit of New Mexico awards during a banquet in January to Animal Welfare Department Operations Manager Joel Craig (left), volunteer Robert Candelaria and Veterans Affairs Hospice worker Amy Neal. Candelaria was recently terminated from his volunteer position with the city’s Animal Welfare Department. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The attention garnered a Spirit of New Mexico Award from the Journal for AWD Operations Manager Joel Craig, Hospice Worker Amy Neal and Candelaria, who gave an impassioned speech to a room of hundreds at Sandia Resort & Casino during the ceremony.

Six months later, Candelaria was gone.

“If I was doing that much damage, fix it, fire me,” he said. “Why are they saying it all now? Why didn’t they deal with it back then, if those things were really happening?”

All for the animals

Employees dealt with “ongoing harassment” from Candelaria for years, according to the initial complaint. The acting director was made aware but did nothing because “he did not wish for a controversy,” and the complaints were brought up to the following acting director, as well.

“At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, management discussed terminating (Candelaria) due to the media being too busy to pick up any complaints he may have however did not carry out any termination,” the report says.

The complaint says that the unaddressed issue was “one of many reasons” an unnamed “leadership member” resigned and suffered a serious medical problem related to stress.

One manager told investigators they feared for their own safety around Candelaria, who was “respectful and dedicated” when he began volunteering in 2018.

The manager said Candelaria became “generally abusive, manipulative and disrespectful,” particularly when it came to the euthanasia of animals Candelaria was involved with. Candelaria would target the staff in those cases and would “send abusive texts and become enraged.”

In January, an animal handler complained that Candelaria sent an email expressing dissatisfaction after he was denied a dog named Gary that had been deemed unadoptable. “The tails that wagged yesterday in hopes of a future, soon will lie still in the (landfill). I wanted to adopt that three-year-old pup and he would have had a great future, just stepped on the wrong toes, so Gary dies,” Candelaria wrote in the email.

Two other complaints, both in February, involve Candelaria telling potential adopters that a dog would be euthanized if not adopted, causing one person to “feel guilty and uneasy.” In another instance, he text-messaged, “I hope (the dog) don’t get put down on my account of sending him to what I thought was his forever home” to someone who had returned a puppy after a trial run.

Managers told investigators Candelaria also broke the rules by giving away leashes and harnesses during adoptions and sneaking non-AWD dogs into Lucky Paws for adoption, even after being told it was not allowed.

As management considered suspension, or termination, Candelaria sent text messages and emails threatening to go public with information – including paperwork on animals that shouldn’t have been euthanized, according to the report.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, management discussed Candelaria’s knowledge of “information that should not be made public or to volunteers” provided to him by an AWD staff member. Around that time, employees said, management told them that the media were preoccupied with COVID-19 and “would not have time for this story and it would be buried.”

Despite multiple references to human resources referrals, an HR employee told investigators they weren’t aware of any documentation of the counseling and suspension of Candelaria. The HR employee said that Candelaria and Nevarez had a “cordial” meeting about “overstepping his authority” and that he agreed to take a few weeks off but didn’t recall the word “suspension” being used.

Candelaria acknowledges that he sent the text messages and emails, he gave away the leashes and he pushed back on behaviorists’ decisions but said it was all for the animals.

“The motive is I just have a big heart for those dogs,” he said, adding that many – more than 50 by his count – were put down unnecessarily for “kennel stress,” characterized by pacing, bed chewing, refusal to eat and hyperactivity.

Discrepancies

The department was often mired in controversy in the years before Keller took office, from allegations that it adopted out potentially dangerous dogs to multiple whistleblower lawsuits.

That includes a onetime staffer who alleged she was fired in November 2017 for blowing the whistle on a former deputy director who moved highly adoptable pets from the city’s shelter to her own, unlicensed animal rescues in Colorado, where they were adopted out for much higher fees. The city ultimately settled the case for $75,000.

Keller, who took office in December 2017, has repeatedly praised the department’s progress since then, proclaiming after his first 18 months on the job that the department “has done a complete 180 from being one of our most deeply challenged departments to becoming one of the shining star departments in the city of Albuquerque.”

But stability has remained elusive, and problems have risen to the surface.

Including interims, the department is on its fourth director in less than three years.

And the office of Inspector General Kenneth Bramlett has released three Animal Welfare-related investigations in the past year alone.

That includes an investigation prompted by allegations that department leaders were “deleting” animal records from the system to camouflage higher euthanasia numbers. That claim was ultimately found to be unsubstantiated. However, the Office of Inspector General report dated in December raised questions about how the city determined it had achieved “no-kill” status, a designation that leaders touted last year when they said the shelter achieved a 90% “save” rate.

The OIG found that the number of animals recorded as alive, in the shelter or elsewhere, and the number that had died, by euthanasia or otherwise, did not add up to the total number reportedly in the shelter’s care. Investigators deemed that 378 animals were “unaccounted-for” in the department’s software tracking system in fiscal year 2019.

It also identified instances of documentation that was “missing, lacking and in error.” For example, the OIG reviewed a sample of 40 euthanasia cases in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 and raised questions about nine of them.

One case cited no reason for why the animal was put down, according to the OIG report. Another was described as parvovirus-related, despite a negative parvo test, and one was euthanized although records reflected it had been trained only one time “before being determined to be aggressive.”

In response to the report earlier this year, a department head said that most of the animals described as unaccounted-for were in foster homes and blamed other issues on the software system, saying the city was working to resolve the problems.

A separate OIG investigation centered on allegations that Animal Welfare had hired an outside contractor named Beehive Technology as “a front” to bring in a subcontractor who had long worked for various city departments under the business name Organizational Change Management but now lived in Florida.

The OIG found that the department paid Beehive $50,000 from July 2018 to May 2019 for work that was only vaguely described in invoices and predominantly provided by the OCM owner, who had a long-standing relationship with then-department Director Danny Nevarez.

“It cannot be determined exactly what services were provided to the City or how the amount of the compensation on each invoice was calculated,” the OIG report said.

The OIG found evidence of “favoritism, collusion and conflict of interest.” It also found that Beehive got the work without a bid process. It recommended the city ban Beehive, OCM and any other companies with the same owners from any future city business.

“Just as with any investigation, the Department reviews the OIG recommendations and puts controls and policies in place to mitigate potential issues going forward,” Ortega said in an email.

Nevarez retired earlier this year.

Looking back

With his own time at AWD in the rearview mirror, Candelaria said he holds no ill will toward those who work at the department.

“It’s got a lot of great people. I know those decisions are tough, I certainly wouldn’t want to make them, but I think there could be more consideration given before taking a pup’s life,” he said.

The accusation that hurts the most is the one concerning the drowned puppy, Candelaria said.

He called AWD’s story “totally inaccurate” and said he went through the proper channels and has the documentation to prove it. Candelaria said he loved that 4-month-old pitbull mix.

The puppy was initially named Sloth by AWD. Candelaria said he thought the name mocked his disability, and he changed it to “Babe Ruth.” He said the death was an accident that happened in minutes and left him in tears.

“It was so painful,” he said. “For them to come out and say that I killed that pup. … I paid $150 to have that pup cremated and I still got him with me today.”

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