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EDITORS NOTE: The words and opinions below belong to the author. However, RCBJ has independently verified from testimony, documents and photographs that the Hi Tor Animal Care Center in Pomona was in a state of severe neglect and cruelty to animals before the Executive Director took the reins in January. In addition to vile physical conditions, the shelter was saddled with debt and unpaid bills, including Debbie DiBernardo’s $30,000 legal fees after being indicted for issuing fraudulent documents. DiBernardo left the board but continues to exert tremendous influence over the shelter, according to multiple sources.
By Rick Tannenbaum
From The Beginning
I was hired by Hi Tor Animal Shelter in January of 2023. When I started, I witnessed neglect, abuse and cruelty to the cats and small animals at the shelter. Ringworm and upper respiratory infections were rampant, cats were not vaccinated, medical records scarcely existed, and the overcrowding was horrific – there were often three cats in cages suitable for one cat. Cats had to stand in soiled litter to eat, drink or get any sunlight or attention. I’ve photographed and documented the conditions when I started and retain those photographs.
I immediately sought to remedy the problems, reduced the cat population by transfers to other shelters, engaged a veterinarian to bring our vaccinations current and to evaluate and treat sick cats. I established protocols to make certain that the overcrowding and serious health issues did not recur.
I shifted staff around and brought in new hires to make sure the problems of the past did not recur. Over the months, we upgraded the facility, started a pet food pantry to help elderly and financially challenged neighbors keep their animals at home, engaged with multiple community groups, laid the seeds for the new Vets for Pets program, brought in larger more humane cages for the cats, improved staff morale, and kept Hi Tor’s fiscal house in order. I also realized early on that the problems at the shelter were not related to a lack of funding. They were based on poor management and Board interference.
I also realized early on that the problems at the shelter were not related to a lack of funding. They were based on poor management and Board interference.
The shelter was deep in debt with creditors seeking repayment from Debbie DiBernardo’s criminal defense attorney, an architect seeking payment for services rendered, web designers who had not been paid, trailer rental invoices that were ignored and other vendors (from utility companies to trash collectors) looking for payment.
In August, I was approached by Board President Kim Von Hein who asked me to sign off on some Community Service Verification Forms for a former employee’s children who did not perform the community service hours outlined on the forms. She also demanded I sign a blank form attesting to hours for this individual. I refused to falsify Hi Tor’s records, because it was wrong to do so and also knowing that the past-president Debbie DiBernardo was indicted for doing just that, and advised Von Hein that I would not sign off on anything fraudulent. She continued to pressure me throughout August to sign the forms through emails, telephone calls and visits to the shelter, but I refused.
I advised her that falsifying the shelter’s records was a criminal act, and that disseminating those fraudulent records to a public authority was also a crime. Von Hein said that she was hoping to swap out fake community service hour verifications in exchange for an agreement from an aggrieved individual to drop a lawsuit already pending against the shelter.
Editor’s Note: Board President Kim Von Hein is the secretary of Gerry Damiani, Sr., Debbie DiBernardo’s defense attorney. Von Hein and DiBernardo became friendly during the legal case; DiBernardo brought Von Hein to the Hi Tor board.
Earlier in the summer, the shelter had an outbreak of feline panleukopenia and many kittens died shortly after their arrival at the shelter. Our contract with Rockland Green was “open admission” and required us to accept every animal that came to our door, including sick and injured animals, regardless of our physical capacity. We were compelled to intake kittens already infected with panleukopenia, and find a way to manage their care in our 60-year old outdated facility where most cat rooms lack running water. It took several weeks to manage the outbreak and protect the cats under our care, but we came out the other end, panleukopenia free.
In late August, Hi Tor was visited by representatives of the ASPCA to review the shelter, our procedures, our staffing, facility, and the general running of the shelter under my leadership. On Friday, September 1, 2023, with Von Hein, co-Board President Gary Kogut, and Board Member Brett Yagel present, the ASPCA gave us high marks in all categories and assured Rockland Green that we were adequately staffed and the animals were well taken care of. The ASPCA also recommended modification of the “open admission” policy that would enable us to manage our intake under “best practices” going forward.
Immediately after that meeting, Von Hein and Kogut terminated my services without giving me any reason. I was not given any warnings, notice or criticism of my management of the shelter of any kind. I was asked to leave the premises immediately. My access to my email, files and documents was cut off as was my access to the PetPoint software that we use to run the shelter. I have not been able to return to the shelter.
Von Hein’s persistent efforts to get those fraudulent documents signed continues to date as other staff members are now being asked and urged to sign off verifying community service hours that were never performed. My termination was unjustified and retaliatory. I discovered that no vote was taken at the Board level on my termination and that the decision to terminate my services was hidden from other Board members. One Board member immediately resigned upon finding out what Von Hein and Kogut did and indicated that she would not have supported my termination. Another advisory Board member also said that she was neither informed nor consulted and would have opposed my termination.
I thank those individuals who were there on the ground with me these many months for their many kind words and continued support. At the same time, I fear for the future of the shelter and the animals there as the Board is in the process of re-installing individuals who were responsible for the conditions at the shelter prior to my time there. This should be a concern for all parties involved or who care about and are responsible for the care of the stray, surrendered and abandoned animals in Rockland County.