The Nevada SPCA has sheltered animals for nearly four decades. Each year it works to find homes for around 2,000 dogs, cats, rabbits, and other pets.
But in 2019, NSPCA insiders accused its president, Kathy Jung, of stealing funds from the non-profit.
The state attorney general recently charged Jung with three felony counts of theft. That’s now being handled in court.
In the fallout from the charges, the Humane Network stepped in to help it revamp operations. The Humane Network told KNPR News that it had a grant to help animal shelters around the state save more animals.
While working on that effort, the network was contacted by the NSPCA board to become trustees and hire new leadership and a new board.
The board of directors stepped down and turned leadership over to the Humane Network. The network ran the shelter until September 2019 when a new board and NSPCA Executive Director Lori Heeren took over.
“There are so many people in this community who have adopted animals from NSPCA over the years,” said Heeren, “Every day I run into people who say, ‘Hey, I adopted two dogs from your shelter.’ There were a lot of people here with good intentions, but our organization needed to run like a business. And even though it was a non-profit, it still needs to run like a business, and every business has its limitations.
Heeren says the shelter and its leadership looked very different before 2019. Back then, Kathy Jung was the long-time president and public face of the shelter. Heeren says for much of her tenure, improvements were made to the shelter.
“Kathy came in and did purchase desks and things so we could have a business infrastructure and operate like a business, which was important.” Heeren said, “She did spend some money on trying to improve the facility, had a company come in and repair a leaky roof and try to do some things with plumbing. So, there were some expenditures that were warranted for this organization.”
According to Heeren, Jung controlled the shelter’s money, telling the community that their donations would eventually buy a new building for the NSPCA. Jung also served as the president of the Board of Directors in 2017, and that’s when financial problems started.
KNPR News reached out to Jung’s lawyer and didn’t receive a response.
“My understanding is the past board meetings, there was not monthly reporting on a financial statement. And no one was asking for that,” Heeren said.
Heeren says there started to be questions about potential donation mismanagement.
“There were some over-the-top expenses, specifically with staff and some travel,” she said, “Our donors know this money goes to impact the animals. So, we’re not going to take them out for lavish dinners. Most of them would be offended by that. I think she knew exactly what she was spending. When you’re spending donor money, you have to be very careful with your choices. And I don’t think she made that distinction.”
Around this time, there were also rumors about the condition of the shelter. Volunteers reported maintenance problems with the building, and they were worried about the safety of the animals. Some took those fears to social media.
“Every rescue has disgruntled volunteers,” said Bryce Henderson, president of No Kill Las Vegas, an animal advocacy organization, “We heard the whispers and we saw the rumors on Facebook. We didn’t look into it too deeply, but as rumors grew stronger and stronger, we finally did reach out to NSPCA to find out what’s going on.”
Henderson says after hearing rumors about animals being kept in unsafe conditions, he asked for a tour.
“’Can we come in and videotape?’ And they said, ‘Sure, you can come videotape. Whatever you want, ask us whatever you want.’ And I said, ‘Can we open any door we want?’ And they said ‘Sure, you’re welcome to do that, you have full access to the shelter.’”
Henderson says those rumors were unfounded, and he felt satisfied after taking his tour.
“We did talk to volunteers while we were there, who had been there a long time. And they were very happy,” he said, “We didn’t see anything that warranted animal cruelty.”
Henderson also pointed out that Jung was known for her likable personality. She was a regular presence on local news programs, showing off adoptable animals and promoting fundraising events to the community.
“She was very visible in the community,” Heeren said, “And that’s why I think there was such an outcry because people had become very familiar with her face with the animals.”
That positive media attention took a different turn in November 2018. NSPCA volunteers reached out to KNTV reporter Darcy Spears with their concerns and worries about animal welfare. This kicked off a months-long investigation that turned up a few surprises.
“As Darcy got more into it, she started uncovering the financial mismanagement,” Heeren said, “She discovered that Kathy had a prior arrest in 2004 for embezzlement at another company. And once that hit the news peak, that really blew everything up.
I think, for NSPCA, that she had been handling money at a non-profit and not informed anyone of her prior record or the Board of Directors had not done a background check on her.”
That is what ultimately led to the criminal investigation into Jung’s activities. Investigators found charges on her NSPCA credit card that weren’t related to the shelter or animal welfare. Jung was also accused of selling a vehicle belonging to NSPCA and keeping the profits for herself.
“She resigned at the request of the Board of Directors, and then the entire Board of Directors resigned. So, there was a complete upheaval of NSPCA in May 2019,” Heeren said.
The Nevada Attorney General’s office became involved in the investigation. Ultimately, Jung was arrested and charged with three felony counts of theft for between $650 and $3,500 each. Her next court hearing is scheduled for June 14.
Jessica Word is an associate professor at UNLV in public information and specializes in non-profit management. She says non-profits open financial records make it easier to spot problems.
“Because we have more access to the financial information on non-profits, we know more about when things go wrong,” she said, “And it’s bigger news when things go wrong because it’s a violation of our trust. In this particular case, and in other similar cases, we see a CEO who is sort of the driving board versus the board sort of taking real ownership of the organization. The other thing that was happening with this, in this instance, and happens in a lot of non-profits is, you have a board that means well, but doesn’t really understand what their responsibilities are in terms of the organization.”
NSPCA needed new leadership, and they turned to Lori Heeren to become the new executive director.
Heeren’s background is in radio station general management, and she also produced the popular Petapalooza events in Las Vegas. Heeren joined the shelter in 2019. One of her first priorities: addressing some of the facility’s maintenance problems.
“We were able to come in and really repair the leaky roof,” Heeren said, “We also repaired evaporative coolers. We do not have reliable HVAC systems in this current facility. We also had a problem where most of the plumbing in this facility had collapsed in our dog kennel areas. So, we made a determination of how many kennels were actually usable where the plumbing worked and limited our animal housing to those kennels.”
Heeren also worked with investigators on the case against Jung. Meanwhile, she found ways to rebuild trust with the community and donors.
“I sent an email to our donors that outlined all of the changes that we have made in financial practices and protocols,” she explained, “So once the arrest was made, I wanted them to know that we had really overhauled a number of things financially here with a very aggressive finance committee that knew we were under the microscope.”
Word says this kind of activity goes a long way toward restoring public confidence in an organization recovering from a scandal.
“They’ve done a really nice job letting people know what they can let them know at this point, really making sure they’ve rebuilt the board, and strategically putting people in place that have better skill sets to manage and rebuild the organization,” she said.
Heeren said it is about reassuring supporters that you’ve righted the ship.
“I think you have to assure them that you have some very strict policies and procedures in place and that you have strong oversight from the board of directors,” she said, “You know moving forward that we have a strategy to protect the organization. Trust takes time. And I would say the best way to build trust is through communication and transparency.”
Heeren also encourages open communication among staff members and volunteers.
“Bring me your criticism, I’m going to listen,” she said, “I may not agree with it or I may make changes. I don’t need to listen to myself talk, I want to listen to other people and hear their ideas. And I think that’s the best course for growth and development to raise the level of any organization, especially Nevada NSPCA.”
Word acknowledges hearing stories like this can make people wary of donating to non-profits, but there are things you can do to make sure your money and time go to the right causes.
“If you’re wanting to get involved in an organization, the best way to do it, or to potentially become a donor is to get involved with that organization, maybe volunteer a few times, especially if you are going to make a larger donation,” she said,
“Obviously, it’s a little difficult right now with the pandemic, but in normal operations, going down, checking out the organization, going to events, talking to board members, making sure they are really involved. Most non-profits are made up of people who really want to do something important for their community. I see much more often founders, board members, and staff putting in extra time and money they don’t get compensated for versus people who take out money from their organizations.”
Henderson believes there’s too much at stake for the public to permanently turn away from any animal welfare organization.
“They have an excellent track record across the country running successful shelters. They can’t be successful without the community behind them though. I have 100 percent faith they will be making the right decisions for the animals and will run a successful shelter,” he said.
One of the big goals for NSPCA is moving to a new building. There were discussions about this for years and the shelter raised funds for it. Now, Heeren says NSPCA is close to making this happen.
“We will be moving NSPCA sometime hopefully in September of this year to a new facility,” she said, “We cannot operate this organization in this current facility. It no longer serves our needs. We really look forward to a place where a roof is not leaking. Where we have new surfaces that are going to be easier to disinfect, and something that we’re really proud of when the public comes by. So, I anticipate there will be a lot of champagne on that day.”
Lori Heeren, Executive Director, NSPCA; Jessica Word, Assistant Professor, UNLV; Bryce Henderson, President, No Kill Las Vegas
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