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‘Due diligence’ followed by board turmoil at Santa Fe animal shelter

September 24, 2018

Glenn Levant said he didn’t receive an orientation packet when he joined the board of directors of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society early this year.

Levant found that unusual. He had received such information when he became a member of several other nonprofit boards, he said.

So, Levant, a former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department who once had commanded its Bureau of Special Investigations, decided to learn what he could from minutes of shelter board meetings, bylaws, tax returns and other documents.

“I was doing due diligence,” Levant said in a recent interview.

What he discovered about the internal workings of the shelter’s multimillion-dollar operation was appalling, he said.

“The financial situation was a serious issue. They’re bleeding money. … The [board meeting] minutes were a mess,” Levant said.

What most concerned him, he said, were board business transactions involving three of its members.

• Part of a Canyon Road estate left to the shelter by a benefactor was transferred in 2012 to the longtime shelter board president, Roddey Burdine. In exchange, Burdine forgave the $300,000 balance on a loan he had made to the shelter five years earlier when, according to shelter officials, the nonprofit was pressed for cash.

An analysis by a real estate agent of similar lots for sale on the city’s east side “indicated a value of $300,000.” But no appraisal was conducted of the property before its transfer to Burdine, and it was never offered for public sale. Burdine left the board in November.

A retrospective appraisal of the land recently conducted for the shelter valued the property at $375,000.

• Without seeking bids for architectural services, the shelter hired board member Trey Jordan as the architect for its veterinary hospital and its animal-rehabilitation center, which were completed in 2013 and 2015.

Jordan had never designed a medical facility but said his firm would do the work at a reduced charge. Jordan’s firm was paid about $408,000, according to shelter officials, who said hiring him saved the shelter money.

• Mary Martin, the shelter’s executive director from 2009-16, lived rent-free in a shelter-owned house for more than four years. Shelter officials said the nonprofit purchased the home, for $545,000, as an incentive for Martin to remain with the organization.

The shelter, at the direction of the board, then sold the house to Martin at a $45,000 loss when she left the nonprofit. The shelter also loaned her $50,000 on an unsecured note to help her make the purchase.

Levant said the shelter board didn’t take his concerns about the insider deals seriously. He and fellow board member Michele Cook, who also questioned the transactions, resigned in June.

But shelter officials said they investigated the deals with Burdine and Jordan after questions were raised by Levant and Cook and found the deals to be proper. They said the transactions were fair to the shelter, although they acknowledged some errors were made in reporting the transactions to the IRS.

As for the rent-free house for Martin, such a perk isn’t out of the ordinary for a shelter executive director, they said.

“There’s nothing significant here to talk about,” Jennifer Steketee, the shelter’s executive director since 2016, said in a recent interview.

She said the board conducted investigations of the lot transfer to Burdine and the hiring of Jordan as architect because of the seriousness of the allegations they had improperly benefited from their board positions.

“We do really good work and our reputation is very important to us,” Steketee said. “That’s why we took this all so seriously.”

The housing arrangement between the board and the shelter’s executive director was not repeated when Martin left the shelter. Steketee, a veterinarian, was working for the shelter prior to becoming executive director and said she had no need for a house.

Levant said the boards he has served on include those of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles; the DARE anti-drug youth program in California and internationally; and the Santa Fe rape crisis center, now called Solace Crisis Treatment Center.

Levant and his wife, Jayne, retired to Santa Fe after his 30-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department and another decade as DARE’s worldwide executive director. Jayne Levant served on the Santa Fe animal shelter board about a decade ago. They have owned rescue dogs.

Glenn Levant acknowledged the shelter could suffer short-term harm as a result of his going public with his concerns but said he hopes public scrutiny will spur long-term improvements.

“They need a competent board of directors that’s going to ensure the survival of the shelter,” he said.

Levant said he raised his concerns first with board President Jan Ballew, then with the entire board.

“The reaction of the board was to attempt to cover it up, hide it, not address it,” he said.

At a heated board meeting in June, Levant said Ballew told him, “We had a very friendly board of directors until you came along.”

Ballew, in a recent interview, recalled that she said, “We had a cohesive, congenial board.” She said it wasn’t a dig at Levant but a comment on how the board had operated in the past.

Levant resigned his board seat that day, as did Cook, an author, former journalist and screenwriter. Cook had recruited Levant to serve on the board.

Cook, who became a board member in 2017, wrote in her resignation letter that prior to Levant joining the board, she had been concerned about most of the issues he later raised.

The board, she said, has shown “a lack of will to deal honestly with the errors of the past.”

“I resign with sadness because I have seen first-hand what tremendous and arduous work our frontline staff does to help needy animals on a daily basis,” Cook wrote. “That said, this board has failed to match the level of integrity shown by the staff, and so at this time, I feel I cannot go out and raise money for the organization with a clear conscience.”

Cook declined to be interviewed for this story.

A third former board member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described having concerns about the legality of hiring Jordan to provide architectural services and called the arrangement a “gross conflict.”

The former board member said other directors were most concerned about the elevated social status that being on the board brought.

“It’s a far cry from a working board,” the former board member said, adding the focus of the board needs to be on what is best for the shelter animals.

According to its bylaws, the duties of the shelter board include overseeing annual budgets, investment policies and strategic plans. It hires and supervises the executive director.

The shelter’s board of directors has been reduced to seven members since the resignations of Levant and Cook. Two of the members, including Ballew, were on the board at the time of the lot transfer to Burdine, the purchase of the house for Martin’s use and the hiring of Jordan as architect for the vet hospital.

Ballew, a former art gallery owner, is married to the board’s treasurer, retired banker Bill Synnamon. The board also includes a chief information officer, a former journalist, a founder of a sportswear company, and a yoga teacher who is a former donor consultant to political and other groups. Steketee is the seventh member.

Synnamon said the shelter is well-positioned for the future with Steketee as executive director and a more professional board to oversee the shelter.

“While the previous board did an excellent job in realizing the original vision for the shelter facilities, the current board is adding people with fundraising experience from other nonprofit boards while emphasizing governance, board development and enhanced financial accountability,” Synnamon said.

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