Deltuva works to stay in animal welfare business

After Michelle "Shelly" Deltuva died last year, daughter Robin Deltuva took the helm of the 66-year-old Animal Welfare Society of Howard County and, according to recent court statements, set about running it the same way her mother had for two decades before her — by the seat of her pants.

First mother, and then daughter, lived off the society's donations and revenue without any kind of internal financial structure, even as basic bills for animal medicines, heat and electricity piled up. The society's board of directors had ceased to exist around the time the organization's Maryland registration as a nonprofit corporation lapsed in 1996, according to court testimony.

There were no books, no salaries and no budget. Robin Deltuva and her family ultimately moved into a rented house on the Columbia property, a move that disgruntled volunteers said further reduced society income.

When some of those volunteers learned that Deltuva was using society funds to buy things such as flat-screen TVs, a computer, video games and DVDs and to pay for tanning sessions, trips to BMX bicycle races for her son, and her truck, they went to the authorities. But a theft charge accusing Deltuva, 37, of using up to $85,000 in donations meant for animals for personal purposes fell apart in court because the society was so disorganized, the case was dismissed, even before the defense presented any evidence.

The society might have been disorganized, but, Deltuva said, the way her mother and she lived from society funds was the only means of reimbursement she knew. To the organization's disgruntled volunteers and donors, the practice of using donations and fees for living expenses looked more like theft.

"I started to get a sick feeling in my gut," volunteer Heather Dalton testified at Deltuva's theft trial, describing how she felt when she discovered the spending.

Organizational chaos

Deltuva is still running the society. As the former volunteers see what they feel is an illegal operation run by an unqualified, unauthorized operator, they are pursuing civil action to have a court-appointed trustee take over. Deltuva had earlier escaped a Howard County Animal Control charge of animal negligence involving a dog.

Deltuva says she's trying to reform the structure of the organization she inherited, and some supporters remain at her side, working for free to help her start over. But for the public, on which the society depends for donations and adoption and inoculation fees — as well as the volunteer labor that runs it — it is a confusing situation, at best.

Petra Walton, a volunteer who has stayed with Deltuva, backs her up. "I can personally attest to the fact that she has been dedicated to the animals in her charge." Walton said she never delved into the society's financial structure, though.

By all accounts, the society is profoundly disorganized and seemingly unaccountable to anyone, despite its recent legal troubles.

The organizational chaos was crucial in getting Deltuva off the hook on the theft charge. Judge Richard S. Bernhardt said that since the nonprofit's corporation registration had lapsed in 1996, there was no legal entity that could be construed as a victim, and with no salary structure or bookkeeping, there was no way to define any alleged theft.

Deltuva's opponents testified that they knew things weren't run right under Shelly Deltuva, and the society was always on the brink of financial ruin. But she was so clearly devoted to the animals — sometimes going without dental care or utilities at her own Woodstock home — that they never pressed the issue while she was alive.

"That's on us," said Susan Bauer, one of the former volunteers and a lawyer. "That's our responsibility. That's our fault. We were wrong."

Deborah Levine, also an attorney and former volunteer at the society, who, with other former volunteers helped inspire the criminal charges, has her own animal rescue nonprofit, called Felines/Fidos in Trouble Rescue. Levine is seeking a court injunction to remove Robin Deltuva from the property on grounds that she has no legal authority to operate the society shelter, and is in effect an unauthorized, illegal interloper.

"Robin changed it from being a shelter to being a puppy mill," Levine said after the trial, citing a sharp increase in pet adoption fees, from $125 to up to $400 per dog. Deltuva said the charges merely pay the cost of animal medical care. She regards Levine and her allies as enemies who are trying to wrest the shelter from her.

Changes 'in right direction'

Aided by the remaining corps of loyal volunteers, Deltuva said she's revived the society's corporate status, has a new board of directors, and is now on salary and paying taxes rather than living off donations. The shelter gets its money from donations and from adoption fees.

"I am making major headway," she said, noting a repainted exterior, a new floor in the dog run room, outside exercise areas and equipped veterinary operating rooms. "We are heading in the right direction, definitely, and we are having a lot of fun." The former volunteers who testified against her should have "come to help me," she said, instead of working against her.

Deltuva said she's been sprucing up the one-story, federal blue, wooden structure the society has used since 1944, and is creating a more businesslike financial structure for what is supposed to be a nonprofit corporation. She's aided by Gloria Garcia, who she said is, like herself, now on salary as a shelter employee, and her live-in boyfriend, Chris Magliarella, a landscaper who donates his efforts. Deltuva wouldn't say what her salary is.

Kathy McCollough, 61, of Ellicott City, a semi-retired nurse who has volunteered at the shelter for about two years, said the legal turmoil has not discouraged her.

McCollough said Shelly Deltuva kept Robin in the dark until she was close to death about the society's finances and the lack of normal business practices. "Those were Shelly's purchases," she said, adding that since her death, Robin Deltuva and other volunteers have sorted through scores of old papers, trying to straighten things out.

On a recent Tuesday, a steady stream of people brought pets in for a regular immunization clinic. Richard Brent, a UPS driver, said he's been coming since he delivered a package at the shelter and then adopted a cat. He brought an aging dog, Cosmo, in for shots, along with three young cats. Scott Pascucci, 39, of Laurel, said he brings cats he finds to the shelter.

"All you really need is to be here and see the love" lavished on stray animals to believe in Deltuva, he said.

Concerns remain

Still, others think the society is set up to benefit Deltuva, not the animals.

Dalton, a graphic designer, said she volunteered to spend up to 30 hours redesigning the society's "amateurish" website. She said she began to see charges on the society's online accounts she helped create for things that would clearly not benefit animals. She knew then, she said, that others' heartfelt donations were going for Robin Deltuva's personal benefit.

Dalton did not take action, she said, because she was afraid of Deltuva.

According to trial testimony, Deltuva spent thousands of dollars of society money over an 18-month period through May 2009. A Howard County detective, Christine Adams, testified that $100 of society money went to pay for commissary items for a male inmate at the Anne Arundel County jail. None of that money went to benefit the animals or the shelter.

According to Bauer's testimony, she told Deltuva that she couldn't use society donations for personal expenses, and Deltuva replied, "I am the Animal Welfare Society." Deltuva denied after the trial that any volunteers suggested reforms.

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