Posted at: 11/05/2013 9:57 AM
By: Beth McDonough, KSTP-TV
There's been a shakeup and now, an investigation, of the Wildcat Sanctuary (TWS).
The Wildcat Sanctuary is located in Sandstone, about an hour south of Duluth. It's one of 9,000 nonprofits registered with the state.
TWS relies solely on private donations to operate, and insiders are now raising questions about where thousands of dollars went.
The founder, Tammy Thies, is under fire after a report claimed embezzlement and fraud. It says the founder was treating the charity's bank account like her own.
If you take a look around, they've got a lot of animals; you'll see cats of all kinds living at the Wildcat Sanctuary. It's the only refuge for those types of wild animals in the state. Each one is a rescue, coming to TWS after being abused or kept as private pets.
Volunteers make sure every cat has a name.
A longtime employee talked to KSTP only after resigning, "There's no question about the care of the animals; there is a question about finances, the donors. The people who really care about the cats -- the money isn't going to them, it's going to Thies' personal needs."
Thies has been the go-to person, rescuing cats and raising funds since 1999. She started small with just a handful of cats, and now the sanctuary cares for 109.
She's seen the refuge through expansion, even a rare April snowstorm that was devastating. Cat enclosures collapsed, animals lives were reportedly at stake. Thies made an urgent pitch to the public for $100,000. Money desperately needed to make repairs at the sanctuary, "she likes to use those cat stories to tug at people's heart strings to get them to open their wallets more."
Sources confirm more than $90,000 worth of donations poured in, from good-hearted Minnesotans. One couple wrote a check for $40 and a note saying "this is all they could afford."
According to multiple sources, it took an estimated $5,000 to make repairs. They say most of the labor and materials were donated. Because The Wildcat Sanctuary is a 501c3, a nonprofit organization, it must abide by certain legal standards including some restrictions on how it spends its money.
Workers noticed discrepancies in the books, some small, some big. Staffers took their suspicions to the nine member board of directors. It hired Dorsey & Whitney, a Minneapolis law firm, to do an independent investigation, and put Thies on administrative leave.
A document delivered to the board in June, was so revealing, half the board stepped down. Including the sanctuary's medical director, Dr. John Baillie. He offered free vet care for years. Dr. Baillie confirmed his resignation over the phone, but wouldn't go into detail.
The finds from Dorsey & Whitney claim Thies violated her fiduciary duties, admitted commingling personal and business funds, committed embezzlement, fraud and theft, even bought her husband skydiving lessons using Wildcat money.
Thies has opened up to KSTP in the past, but wouldn't open the gate of the secure facility to talk with us this time.
According to the Dorsey & Whitney report, she also didn't answer a number of their probing questions.
In September, Thies stepped aside.
The new president of the board, Gail Plewacki, a longtime friend of Thies, wouldn't meet with KSTP in person. He did acknowledged in an email a review several months ago, and went on to insist a separate, special audit recently concluded, "there's been no theft from the organization, any such accusations are patently false, we have never misled donors, we dedicated funding to caring for the cats."
Mike Brannen runs the University of Missouri Alumni Chapter in the Twin Cities, it gave $500 over the summer, "you expect a charity to be someone that you can trust with your money, you take them at face value." He's got more donations, but is holding off for now.
That's what worries longtime sanctuary supporters the most, "we want the cats to stay where they are, we don't want the sanctuary to close down because of one greedy person, Tammy Thies is not The Wildcat Sanctuary, the cats are The Wildcat Sanctuary."
Myk Hamlin is a longtime volunteer, "we want to keep all the cats here, we know if something happens the cats might have to go someplace else, some of them might even have to be euthanized and we don't want to see that."
It's not easy to move the cats around to another shelter. There are only six of them around the country.
KSTP verified The Wildcat Sanctuary is fully accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). The Director, Patty Finch, says it passed rigorous standards for staffing and finances in 2012, a year before any of these allegations came to light. GFAS hasn't received a single complaint.
KSTP has asked the board president, Gail Plewacki, for a copy of the completed audit, but she's refused to hand it over or explain what happened to money leftover from the snowstorm fundraiser, reportedly about $80,000.
Thies has a new role, Director of Fundraising and Donor Development.
KSTP confirmed the Minnesota Attorney General's office is reviewing and looking at complaints but couldn't tell us if a full investigation is underway.
The AG's office investigates complaints about several hundred charities every year.
Click here for more on the investigation at The Wild Cat Sanctuary and for smartgivers.org.