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Director of cat sanctuary used money for personal items, report finds

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news Duluth, 55802
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

The executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary used the nonprofit’s money to pay for personal items such as ladies underwear, hair-removal products and books such as “My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands,” the state attorney general’s office said on Tuesday.

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A scathing report filed in Ramsey County District Court and signed by Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Dukart said Tammy Thies, who founded the Sandstone wildlife facility in 1999, also received double reimbursements for some items, had more than $550 of her personal property taxes for 2009 and 2010 paid and was paid more than $4,900 for use of her cellphone from 2009 to 2012.

The findings were part of a 30-page “Assurance of Discontinuance” signed by Dukart and Gail Plewacki, the sanctuary’s board chairwoman. The agreement holds the Wildcat Sanctuary’s board accountable for getting its financial house in order, and spells out detailed instructions for achieving that goal.

Thies remains the sanctuary’s executive director, spokesman Robb Leer said in an email. She was not available for interviews, he said.

But in a news release, the organization said the money used for Thies’ property taxes already had been repaid and that the nonprofit’s bookkeeping already had been outsourced to an accounting firm.

“Our donors have stayed with us even as we have stumbled and made mistakes,” Thies said in the news release. “They deserve a professional and transparent organization that unfailingly meets the needs of the animals they support. This is what we are committed to giving them.”

Plewacki added: “Our agreement with the attorney general helps us focus on the most important changes we need to make to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”

The sanctuary, which has more than 100 big cats on about 36 acres, has been in a state of turmoil for more than a year. In March 2013, sanctuary employees complained about Thies’ spending to the board of directors. Then-President Charles Durant issued a report on April 9, 2013, finding financial impropriety on Thies’ part. The board then hired the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney, which provided its own report on June 19, also finding improprieties.

Next, the board placed Thies on paid administrative leave, the attorney general’s report states, but she assumed the position of director of fundraising and donor development that same month.

On Oct 30, the board voted 6-3 to restore Thies as executive director, after which the three dissenting members resigned. At that point, only two members had been on the board more than two months, the report noted. Four of the members who voted to reinstate Thies were attending their first meeting.

By last November, Thies was the only Wildcat Sanctuary employee who had been there longer than one month, the report said.

The attorney general’s office launched its own investigation that same month.

The report criticized the organization for “misuse of charitable assets, lack of sufficient internal controls, failure to maintain financial records, failure to meet reporting obligations and insufficient board oversight and governance.”

Without “prior or written approval,” the sanctuary paid more than $3,200 between Dec. 10, 2010, and Feb. 28, 2013, for propane used to heat Thies’ home, the report found. It also paid for electricity in her residence and for property improvements, including building a dog run.

Moreover, many expense reports and receipts were missing or the Wildcat Sanctuary failed to produce them, the attorney general’s office said.

When questioned under oath, Thies sometimes gave contradictory statements, the attorney general’s report said. But she acknowledged that using the nonprofit’s money to pay some of her property taxes was “definitely an error” and that she used the sanctuary’s PayPal account to pay for skydiving lessons for her husband.

Thies said she would reimburse the nonprofit for such expenses by placing the money in petty cash. But before 2013, those contributions weren’t documented, according to the report.

Among other terms of the agreement between the attorney general’s office and the sanctuary: The board is required to hire an independent CPA to evaluate its recordkeeping practices, appoint a third-party monitor for two years and calculate the amount of money Thies used for personal purposes. If Thies refuses to pay back the money, she must be fired, it says.

The agreement also contains a provision to notify the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies if financial instability threatens the welfare of the big cats.

But Leer said the sanctuary’s financial status “is currently stronger and more sustainable” than ever. It has a core of 30 volunteers and is seeking more, Leer said, and an office manager has been hired to coordinate that program.

It has five full-time employees with postings on its website for more, Leer said.

“Cat care remains our top priority, and this group is doing a fabulous job,” he wrote.

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