After weeks of relative silence, Lewis County has issued a formal response to ongoing concerns regarding the animal shelter.
Four long-term employees lobbed allegations against Shelter Manager Jennifer Teitzel earlier this year, saying their boss misappropriated funds, bullied employees, lied to the public and asked staffers to falsify medical records.
As the four women — who have since resigned — consider mounting a lawsuit or asking the state to investigate, Lewis County Manager Erik Martin’s written response breaks precedent.
“While we typically do not respond publicly with respect to pending matters, in this instance we believe it is important to share some more information to assure our community that we are remaining consistent with our values as a fair and equitable employer and ethical steward of public funds,” Martin wrote in a news release Friday.
He noted that county personnel were asked to refrain from public comment regarding the animal shelter as the county investigated, creating a “one-sided narrative that, I’m sure, was very painful for them to hear and very misleading to the public.”
An investigation by the county found no evidence of retaliation against the complainants. And while the investigation found that the use of cash donations was not in compliance with county policy, cash funds “in its entirety is an issue, not just when it was used by Ms. Teitzel,” the investigation findings read.
“No evidence” of a hostile or toxic work environment was found, according to the county.
Allegations of falsified vaccination records or that Teitzel adopted out a dog without properly quarantining it first “were unfounded.”
Attorneys for the four women, however, say the investigation was “incompetent” and “a farce,” failing to look into several specific allegations lobbed by the ex-employees.
In his news release, Martin said Public Health Director JP Anderson found no evidence behind several of the womens’ claims. But public records requests for the investigations’ findings only show an investigation conducted by Luis Garcia-Flores, at the Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
“If JP Anderson conducted a different investigation, why isn’t it documented?” said Marissa Jay, an attorney at Buzzard O’Rourke involved with the case.
Jay also said the investigation did not delve into one key allegation: that Teitzel concocted a news story about an “imposter” posing as an animal shelter employee.
The shelter’s news release assured the public that “all shelter employees carry county-issued photo identification.” But emails included in Marcie Dekoker’s affidavit show Teitzel asked staffers for photos to create said IDs only after the fact.
The county’s investigation also did not address Dekoker’s claim that Teitzel inappropriately asked staffers to connect animals to a Lewis County Sheriff’s Office case number in order to access a $50,000 fund specifically set aside for abused animals.
In a public record containing Teitzel’s statements regarding the allegations, the manager denied using donations for personal reasons, but admitted to an “error in judgement” in which she “flippantly stated” the shelter could transport a cat without completing a blood draw. She said no felines actually left the shelter “with the false assumption of having services provided which were not completed.”
And while the investigation also found no evidence of retaliation against the women, their attorneys contend that putting them on paid administrative leave was a form of retaliation. It’s a claim Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer called baseless in a letter to attorney Jim Buzzard.
Regarding the investigation, Martin said the allegations were taken “very seriously, as they came from long tenured employees with a long history of dedicated service to Lewis County.”
He said the women “declined to participate in interviews” before they resigned. It’s a sentiment echoed by Meyer, who in a June 3 letter to Buzzard said the women “refused the county’s request to be interviewed in conjunction with the investigation.”
That’s “disingenuous,” according to Jay, who said the county is trying to “gaslight” its former employees. According to the law firm, between March 18 and April 12, Dekoker was interviewed three times, and Robin Williams, Lucy Ford and Rita Payne were each interviewed twice.
More “investigatory interviews” were declined, after attorneys said county officials “refused to inform whether our clients were being investigated.”
The county concluded that Tietzel would “benefit from supervisory workshops and other classes to expand her knowledge and understanding in her role,” also stating that “she is not the reason the shelter is failing.”
The county has said that many issues at the shelter predated Teitzel, who took the job last August.
“In addition, the employees who filed the complaints apparently knew about these practices but did nothing to change them,” Martin wrote.
Lewis County, Jay said, is “blaming their own failure to supervise on employees.”
Lewis County is currently looking to fill two animal shelter technician positions.