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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The New Jersey Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJ-SPCA), based in New Brunswick, has long been mired in controversy.
In January, continued calls to action by animal-rights activists and state-sanctioned reports over the course of nearly two decades, culminated in the adoption of a state law to strip the NJ-SPCA of its police powers.
Former Governor Chris Christie signed the bill, which passed the state Assembly 63-0 with four abstentions, during his final days in office.
“They overstayed their welcome in New Jersey,” Collene Wronko, president and founder of Reformers – Advocates for Animal Shelter Change in NJ, said in an interview with New Brunswick Today.
Wronko has long been involved in the community’s dealings with the organization.
“I testified at length at any hearing that there was and was there the day when the assembly passed the bill. As far as the [NJ-SPCA’s] inconsistencies, I have literally been pointing it out to them for years,” she said, noting that she’s worked with News12’s Walt Kane, an investigative journalist who also helped shine a light on the troubled agency.
The NJ-SPCA headquarters is located at the intersection of Livingston Avenue and 9th Street in New Brunswick, across from the city’s Middle School. They did not respond to requests for comment.
Many of the grievances raised by Wronko and other activists were echoed by media outlets and the State Commission of Investigation (SCI) as the NJ-SPCA came under increasing scrutiny.
“Although NJSPCA maintains a headquarters in New Brunswick, NJSPCA officers and agents typically operate out of their own homes and offices,” read the organization’s website prior to the changes.
“Most NJSPCA officers and agents have a full-time job, and most of what they do in humane law enforcement amounts to donated time.”
In an unusual arrangement, the NJ-SPCA operated as a private organization with a charter from the state granting it astonishing police powers under an 1868 law, which was revised in 2006.
They were run by a 15-member Board of Trustees, including nine members “elected by the broad membership of the State Society [for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals],” three members elected from county-level SPCA chapters, and three members who are appointed by the Governor of New Jersey, and approved by the State Senate.
Animal activists like Wronko have raised concerns over whether or not the group was required to respond to requests made under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), New Jersey’s law that guarantees the public the right to inspect or receive copies of public records.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) pulled the agency’s tax-exempt status in May 2016 for failing to file taxes for three straight years, but organization’s own board members did not find out until News12 broke the story six months later.
Kane’s report pointed out that the agency failed to file its required annual financial audits with the state for over a decade, according to the NJ Attorney General’s Office.
Like the 2000 report, the scathing 2017 report recommended “a complete restructuring of the system used by New Jersey to enforce animal cruelty laws” and painted a harrowing picture of an organization with questionable oversight.
According to the report, the NJ-SPCA had no annual budget, did not require reimbursement forms for expenses charged to the agency by employees or volunteers, and authorized payment of bills via email.
“The NJSPCA has no centralized system for tracking finances,” reads an excerpt from page 18 of the report.
The report also noted the troubled agency’s failure to respond to complaints of animal abuse, inconsistent record-keeping, spending more than $775,000 in legal bills (higher than any other expense, including animal care), and circumventing the spirit of the 2006 law meant to establish effective and transparent governance of the agency.
According to investigators, the NJ-SPCA “remain[ed] a haven for wannabe cops,” who in some instances believed they could carry out traffic stops.
Roughly twenty humane officers had firearms on their person without the proper authorization from the New Jersey State Police, according to the report. The report also found that the NJ-SPCA “could not estimate how much revenue it is entitled from animal cruelty fines” and provided financial perks to its top members including cars.
David Gaier, who was appointed to the NJSPCA’s board by the Governor for five years but quit after 18 months, thinks the next few months are key for the future of animal protection in the state.
“The new attorney general needs to assure that this organization is properly unwound,” he said in a phone interview, referring to Gurbir Grewal, the state’s top law enforcement official. “One of the reasons I resigned was I couldn’t get clear picture on the agency’s spending powers, and that continues to be one of my concerns.”
“It’s a good thing this organization is being dissolved but it’s important that the state and the new governor properly deal with all the money and [if necessary] figure out a way to donate it to bonafide organizations and assure animals are protected in each county,” added Gaier. “The shelter system is broken and new Governor [Phil Murphy] should be thinking about the welfare of animals.”
Brian Stone, who worked as an NJ-SPCA officer for four years, said, “The loss of the NJ-SPCA and their governing body is no great loss at all. The transition is very simple and not going to cost as much as people think.”
“Municipalities already have police departments in place, [although] it will be important to train officers on Title 4,” said Stone, referncing the portion of New Jersey law concerning the sanctity of animals.
The law stripping the agency of its police powers was championed by former State Senator Raymond Lesniak, who left office shortly after it was signed into law.
The NJSPCA’s powers will now be transferred to county prosecutors in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties and municipal police departments across the state will be required designate a humane law enforcement officer.