by Daniel B. Frye
What would cause a committed core of volunteer puppy raisers working for the Eye Dog Foundation for the Blind (EDF), a guide dog training school based in Bakersfield, California, with training operations in Phoenix, Arizona, to engage in a collective act of civil disobedience, declining to return their animals for further training by the school? What extraordinary circumstances would cause these volunteers to fear for their lives and livelihoods and the safety of the puppies in their charge? Why would over 50 percent of the board of directors and three successive directors of training and their support teams terminate their association with this organization during the last two years? What administrative problems could cause potential students to wait over a year for an application for services, to be denied timely assistance managing their dogs’ serious medical problems, or to be denied the opportunity to purchase something as simple as a replacement leash for a working EDF service animal? How is it that a multi-million-dollar foundation that appeals to the general public for funds to train guide dogs for the blind has not graduated a single human-dog team during the last year? And what reputable organization would be so insular in its operations that contact information for its governing body is not available on request and most communications from the school's own puppy-raising community, donors, and the media are fielded by legal counsel instead of by the executive director?
The answers to these and other disturbing questions may be partially found in the long and sordid story of the Eye Dog Foundation's history and operations. Concerned members of the EDF volunteer puppy-raising community initially contacted the Braille Monitor about this story. After examining the facts, we concluded that the blind community, program volunteers, donors, and appropriate oversight authorities across America deserve to know about both the troubles and triumphs at EDF. In this way the interested parties may become aware of the school's past and make informed decisions about their association with it in the future. The details are complicated, but here is what we know.
According to Joey Etienne, the court-appointed EDF receiver for much of 2007, the Eye Dog Foundation for the Blind, Incorporated, was founded by Lequita McKay in 1952 to breed and train guide dogs for the blind. McKay was apparently one of the earliest female attorneys licensed in California to specialize in high-profile wills, trusts, and estates. She apparently merged her passion for training guide dogs with her law practice, persuading many of her clients over twenty years or more to donate to or make generous bequests to EDF.
By the middle to late 1960s, the EDF had amassed enough money to start training and placing guide dogs with blind handlers. Etienne said that, at some stage in the latter 1960s, McKay "somehow got crossways" with the California Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind (the board), the only governmental entity in the United States of its kind responsible for licensing guide dog trainers and regulating guide dog schools operating in the state. It is generally agreed that a settlement was reached between McKay's Eye Dog Foundation and the board in about 1967 in which the board relinquished regulatory jurisdiction over EDF in exchange for McKay's commitment not to raise funds for EDF in California and to train guide dogs outside the state. The school's corporate status and headquarters, however, were permitted to remain registered in California.
The EDF’s work appears to have continued without public incident for the next thirty-seven years or so. We talked with several current EDF consumers, and, while Patricia Kepler and Petra Janes are presently disappointed with various aspects of recent interactions with school personnel, both report being generally satisfied with the quality of the guide dogs they have received over the years.
During this extended period of peace, a number of cultural patterns of EDF’s governance and day-to-day management emerged that foreshadowed trouble and perhaps even enabled some of the more overt instances of chicanery that have occurred in recent years. From 1967 through 1988, when the EDF purchased its training campus in south Phoenix, Arizona, the school remained a small concern compared to major guide dog schools elsewhere in the country. In 1988 EDF abandoned its practice of providing in-home training for a few students, and started offering a more conventional course of study to guide dog classes at its newly acquired property in Phoenix.
According to Patrick Frase, EDF assistant executive director for about two years before affairs at EDF began to unravel in 2006, the school's small size and low public profile gave McKay an inordinate amount of control. Frase explained that McKay manipulated the composition of the EDF board so that it consisted of longtime friends and members of her family. He reported that customary and transparent business practices such as preparing annual reports and maintaining consistent meeting minutes did not regularly occur. Frase confirmed that, with the approval of her board, McKay sat on the EDF board while drawing an annual salary of between $86,000 and $89,000 as the organization's executive director.
Frase said he believes McKay may have used EDF for "suspicious if not illegal personal tax advantages," and he reported that "red flags" were raised for him when he saw how much money was spent, considering the small number of dogs trained and graduated during his tenure. The Braille Monitor has also learned from Wendy Wonderley, a former EDF board member who ultimately resigned as a casualty of the organizational uproar soon to be described, that under McKay's leadership, retiring employees of the school (namely McKay herself; Ruby Bell, McKay's sister; and Lucille Gibbons, a longtime McKay friend until the 2006 split) were entitled to receive generous fringe benefits, including proceeds from a "profit-sharing account," comprehensive medical coverage, and a lump sum bonus equivalent to one half of their annual salaries. Wonderley commented that this was an irresponsible fiscal policy for an organization the size of Eye Dog Foundation (presently valued at somewhere between $7 and $10 million) to adopt.
Despite these allegations of wrong-doing and corruption, Frase emphasized that he believes that McKay genuinely wanted to be of help to blind people through the training of high-quality guide dogs, and he believes that it was her positive motivation that allowed her to function unscathed and unmasked at EDF during her fifty-five-year association with the school. Mr. Frase's employment with EDF was ultimately terminated because of his irreconcilable differences with McKay. Wendy Wonderley confirmed, in terms more vague than those of Mr. Frase, her feeling that McKay exercised an unusual degree of control over EDF, but she too believes that McKay was sincerely committed to the mission of the school. Wonderley put it succinctly when she said, "Lequita was a benign dictator."
McKay's reign at Eye Dog Foundation seems to have come to an unceremonious end during the autumn of 2006. According to Wendy Wonderley, a series of rapid-fire EDF board transactions and legal skirmishes in the Kern County Superior Court between the two factions of the school's board of directors over the next twelve months resulted in Gwen Brown’s wresting control of the EDF board and the organization’s executive directorship from McKay and those loyal to her. Since the division on the EDF board and the ensuing struggle for power were the genesis of the most recent round of troubles, we will provide a brief chronology of events from September 2006 through September 2007.
The following timeline has been provided largely by Wendy Wonderley, but important dates have been confirmed by Joey Etienne and supporting court documents. We also contacted Gwen Brown by telephone, but she declined to be interviewed. Instead she wanted to talk only about who prompted our decision to report this story before abruptly terminating the telephone conversation. We repeatedly requested in writing an interview with Ms. Brown through her legal counsel in California and Arizona. On October 27 H. Steven Schiffres of Rosoff, Schiffres, and Barta, general California counsel for the EDF, responded to an October 20 Braille Monitor request for an interview, which listed potential interview topics with Brown but did not ask specific questions or present evidence for comment as would have been the case in an actual written interview. In his letter Mr. Schiffres refused the interview and made few substantive statements, noting that the Braille Monitor’s October 20 inquiry did not offer details and documentary evidence inviting a thorough response. Since our letter had been only an invitation for an interview and not a written set of interrogatories, his statement was technically correct. Nevertheless, his statements will be included in this article when they are responsive to claims critical of EDF and Brown. Finally, a statement from John D. Clark Jr., EDF’s legal counsel in Arizona, was submitted to the Braille Monitor for publication. Apparently Clark has been employed to represent EDF only in its effort to recover the dogs currently being housed by EDF volunteer puppy raisers. Clark's statement is printed in full elsewhere in this article.
On September 23, 2006, both Gwen Brown, now executive director and chairperson of the EDF board, and Wendy Wonderley were named to the EDF board. Michael Hannon is a member of that board and an attorney licensed in California. Several sources report that Hannon is Brown's spouse and Wonderley said that Hannon nominated Brown to the school's board. According to Wonderley, Brown received the support of all EDF board members except McKay, who reportedly warned her colleagues that Brown's appointment would be disastrous for EDF. Wonderley said that in retrospect she regrets her support of Brown's nomination to the board.
Wonderley said that on October 8, 2006, Brown called an emergency board meeting. It is undisputed that at this meeting McKay resigned as EDF executive director, but the parties differ about whether McKay's resignation of her paid position included resignation from the school's board.
According to Schiffres’s October 27 letter, the Brown faction of the EDF board (Gwen Brown, Michael Hannon, and Lucille Gibbons) believed that McKay resigned from both the executive directorship and her board position; the McKay faction (Lequita McKay, Wendy Wonderley, and Louis Harris) understood McKay to have resigned only her position as executive director, while retaining her voting seat on the board.
On October 21, 2006, the EDF board held another meeting, in which four new board members were nominated, but none were elected because the board was deadlocked. Squabbling continued about whether McKay had the right to exercise her vote as an EDF board member.
Wonderley reports that the McKay faction then filed a lawsuit against EDF and the members of the Brown faction over whether McKay continued to hold a seat on the EDF board, since a three-to-three split prevented governance of the organization. Wonderley said that the McKay faction asked the judge to dissolve the Foundation and to transfer its assets to Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York.
On November 17, 2006, yet another EDF board meeting was convened, but Ms. Wonderley said that she was not given notice of this gathering. She says that, to support her and to deny the Brown faction a quorum, McKay and Harris refused to attend this meeting. Wonderley said that during this meeting she was voted off the board and that Brown was confirmed as EDF’s executive director. Naturally the McKay faction dismissed the actions of the November 17 board meeting as illegal since a quorum was not present. The McKay faction tried to overturn the decisions ratified at the November 17 meeting in their lawsuit.
On December 21, 2006, the McKay faction of the EDF board filed an ex parte application for appointment of receivership to neutralize the Brown faction, who were making day-to-day decisions about the operation of the school. A hearing before Judge Louis P. Etcheverry of the Kern County Superior Court was scheduled for January 31, 2007. According to Wonderley, failure of legal counsel for the Brown faction to file responses caused the hearing to be continued to February 8.
On February 8 Judge Etcheverry issued an Order for Appointment of Receiver and Preliminary Injunction in favor of the requests that the McKay faction had made to the court. In summary Judge Etcheverry ruled that McKay's retirement as executive director did not operate to remove her from the EDF board. The judge also confirmed the composition of the EDF board, which included Wonderley as a board member, repudiating the EDF board's actions of November 17, 2006. Finally, Judge Etcheverry placed EDF in the hands of a receiver to evaluate what was needed to make the organization functional.
On February 21, 2007, Judge Etcheverry signed the official order appointing Joey Etienne as EDF receiver. Wonderley reports that on the same day Brown attempted to convene another EDF board meeting at which she asserted her entitlement to a salary as executive director. Wonderley says that she was again not given notice of this meeting. Receiver Etienne confirms that he had to suspend Brown's EDF salary during the organization's receivership.
Etienne submitted his recommendations to the court on the future of EDF on May 8, 2007. He recommended that the organization headquartered in California be dissolved and that its assets be transferred to the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona created by McKay to manage some minor school matters, which for all practical purposes existed on paper and had performed few actual services. Because of the deadlocked board Etienne suggested that a diverse group of Arizona advisors work with a nonprofit manager to create a new board and establish a reconstituted foundation within the existing framework of the articles of incorporation and bylaws of the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona. Finally, he recommended that he oversee the EDF dissolution until a smooth transition to the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona could be achieved.
On May 16, 2007, Judge Etcheverry entered a default judgment in favor of the McKay faction of the EDF board. On June 11 the receiver's report was accepted, but for reasons that remain unclear the case was transferred to Judge Palmer of the Kern County Superior Court. Taking the opportunity to persuade a different judge before Judge Etcheverry's default judgment was officially registered, counsel for the Brown faction successfully argued before Judge Palmer on July 11, 2007, to have the original default judgment set aside. Several days later, on July 20, McKay unexpectedly died.
Following McKay’s death, the substantive grounds for the original lawsuit no longer existed, so the impasse on the EDF board was broken. In view of these developments, Judge Palmer directed the parties to settle at a hearing on August 16. The court directed that the settlement should relieve the receiver of his duties at a hearing on September 6 and that control of the foundation should be passed back to the school's board. The board was directed to replace McKay on the board in accordance with EDF’s bylaws.
It appears that an unusual set of circumstances conspired to snatch a legal victory on the merits of the case from the McKay faction of the EDF board. Wonderley reports that the Brown faction quickly capitalized on these developments and scheduled a board meeting for September 25. A quorum was present. The EDF board moved to reinstate Brown as the school's executive director, affirming its confidence in her by ratifying all the actions she had tried to take during the past year. Jerome Washington and Christopher Uboma, candidates supportive of Brown, were elected to the board. Persuaded that she could no longer provide accountable oversight for EDF and not wanting to be responsible for future decisions taken by the Brown-dominated board, Wonderley tendered her resignation at the conclusion of the September 25 meeting.
In reviewing Brown's performance as EDF’s executive director, we have learned that three successive directors of training and most of their support staff have left the school since September 2007. Manny Gonzales, EDF director of training from February 11, 2006 to September 5, 2007, said that he left a job and program he loved because of the micromanaging harassment he received at Brown’s hands. Specifically he said, "Gwen was disrespectful of staff. She made unfounded and outlandish accusations towards us. She was ignorant when it came to knowledge of guide dog practices. She had no experience in assessing the O&M skills of blind people, but she'd regularly presume to intercept and divert applications from students. You couldn't reason with her; you couldn't talk to her." Gonzales is a certified guide dog trainer through the state of California, and he has a degree from New Zealand's Massey University in orientation and mobility. Without exception, everybody with whom we spoke for this story praised Gonzales's competence as a guide dog trainer. In concluding his interview with us, Gonzales said, "Any self-respecting guide dog trainer with any sense would now not remain at Eye Dog Foundation. What's happening under Gwen Brown's leadership is a shame." Patti Savage, a respected puppy coordinator with EDF from September 2004 through November 2006, grew weary of working for Brown almost ten months before Gonzales decided to leave. Among Savage's grievances against Brown were allegations that the acting executive director interfered with her professional judgment to take dogs in her care for special medical treatment and that staff were regularly required to dip into their own pockets for operating cash because Brown would not provide the needed funds.
During the almost four months following Gonzales's departure, EDF had no director of training, certified or otherwise. In the weeks after his departure, Barbara Kuhns, EDF office administrator hired in July 2007 by the receiver, and Paula Brown, EDF puppy coordinator, both left their jobs and temporarily shut the Phoenix facility down. Kuhns said, "For the last month of our employment, Paula and I would leave work together for fear of our safety. Gwen was intimidating and created a threatening environment. She regularly would tell Manny that she had somebody watching him." According to Kuhns, both she and Savage left EDF still owed some back pay. Representatives from the EDF volunteer puppy-raiser community told the Braille Monitor that during this period they received little to no communication from Brown about what was happening and that all puppy raiser classes were suspended without notice.
Bryan Young was hired to replace Gonzales as director of training on December 15, 2007. While not certified as a guide dog trainer by California, Young brought considerable experience, having worked for EDF for several years in the middle 90s and with several other schools, including Leader Dogs in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
Young reported that problems existed for him and the school from the beginning of his EDF employment. He said that his pay was often late, sometimes issued on personal EDF checks and occasionally on more conventional payroll checks. He also reported irregularities with the deduction of state and Social Security taxes from his pay. Finally, Young says that he has still not been paid for almost two weeks of work following his abrupt decision to resign on July 4, 2008.
Above and beyond these issues, Young told us that Brown tried to micromanage the school, second guessing and failing to act on his recommendations to release animals not suitable as guide dogs and refusing to forward student applications to him when advised that dogs were almost ready for placement. Additionally, Young said that Brown created operational difficulties and safety hazards at the school when she took actions, including canceling dog food deliveries to the campus and terminating the school's cell phone services, which jeopardized the over-heating alarm systems in the vans used to transport dogs for off-campus training. Young explained that he ultimately spent his personal funds to purchase food for the animals in his care. Both Young and Kuhns told us that bills from many creditors were paid late or not at all.
Counsel for Brown and EDF counter that significant administrative disruptions occurred because of a delay in moving accounts back to the control of EDF from the receiver, which may have resulted in some bills being paid late. EDF counsel states that all creditors have been made whole at this stage or that payments have intentionally not been honored for cause, including breach of contract or nonperformance. Young says that he is continuing to try to resolve his pay dispute with EDF, and Wonderley says that EDF officials are declining to pay McKay's estate her retirement entitlement.
According to Young, as executive director Brown cultivated a terrible and intimidating relationship with the staff. He said that Brown called Michelle Tenny, puppy raiser coordinator under his charge, at all hours of the night to let her know "just how replaceable" she was. Finally he reported that at one stage during his seven-month employment he was approached by a representative of a company who told him that Brown had hired his firm to install surveillance equipment on campus. According to Young, the company representative ultimately said that ethically he couldn't be part of this bizarre assignment and left the property without finishing the job.
According to Young, in April 2008 Executive Director Brown hired Doug Hunter as Young's supervisor. This relationship was short-lived, though, because Hunter remained on staff for less than ten days. Young said that Hunter told him, while being driven to the airport, that he didn't know if he'd ever come back and that he couldn't get a commitment in writing from Brown about the terms of his employment.
Young and Tenny both abruptly resigned their positions with EDF on Friday, July 4, 2008, when, as Young tells it, Brown was unresponsive to his repeated requests for authorization to have an EDF dog receive emergency medical care, which ultimately required surgery. Exasperated and bewildered by the oppressive and hostile environment that Brown created, Young said that he and Tenny "had simply put up with enough." In preparing to close the Phoenix property for the second time in less than a year in the absence of staff to operate it, Young told the Braille Monitor that he contacted the volunteer puppy raisers whose dogs were in the school's kennel to come and collect the animals for safe keeping until new staff could be identified.
In early August Brown hired Dexter Morin as EDF director of training. Since Morin resigned his position on October 5, just as this story was coming to our attention, we did not have an opportunity to interview him.
According to DaCoda Whittemore, EDF assistant guide dog trainer and facilities manager from August 12 to August 26, 2008, and several of the school's volunteer puppy raisers, Morin, in his early twenties, was recruited from Noah's Assistance Dogs in Crete, Nebraska, where he had helped to train perhaps a handful of dogs. Ruth Dutton, an EDF volunteer puppy trainer, told us that she had been in contact with Morin's former supervisor, Mike Renner, after being alarmed at Morin's lack of experience, and was advised that he was dedicated to the profession but was by no means ready to assume the responsibilities of a lead guide dog trainer. Mike Renner, director of Noah's Assistance Dogs, told the Braille Monitor that in fact Morin was associated with his program briefly through the AmeriCorps Program, but, when funding for this position was terminated, Mr. Morin continued with the school as a volunteer. Mr. Renner confirmed that "it would be quite a stretch" to expect Morin to function as director of training for any reputable guide dog training facility. Denise Warner was hired as Morin's puppy coordinator, and she remains employed at EDF at this writing.
Whittemore's description of her brief tenure at EDF mirrors the pattern of discontent and concern expressed by Gonzales and Young. "Despite having eight years of experience in the field of animal behavior science, it became apparent that I was not going to be allowed to do anything. I would fax ideas for on-campus improvements, but my communications were ignored. I was told that I could not discuss anything about internal operations at Eye Dog Foundation with anybody. I saw no generation or meaningful preparation of working dogs at all while I was at Eye Dog Foundation. I would caution those in the public about contributing to this school without finding out what their money is really being used for. I decided to leave this part-time job and pay full-time attention to my own business."
In response to the concerns of the volunteer puppy-raiser community and others about the organization's ability to retain qualified staff, counsel for EDF concede in their letter of October 27, 2008, that retaining professional personnel is a difficult task. They further acknowledge that "some turnover" in staff has occurred during the past year, but counsel contends that the EDF board strive to identify qualified staff and that currently no key positions are not staffed by competent individuals. This claim is hard to accept since the only staff present at the Phoenix property when we tried to tour the facility on Thursday, October 16, 2008, was Denise Warner, puppy coordinator formerly under Morin, and a man called Rick, who described himself as a grounds caretaker without any professional background with service animals. We are unclear whether Warner's role has changed since Morin's departure; she did claim to be qualified to train guide dogs during the brief over-the-fence conversation we had with her. Despite the invitation on the EDF Website to visit the campus, the staff refused us admittance to the Phoenix property for a tour and instead referred us to Brown in California to arrange any future visits.
EDF has a devoted and passionate volunteer puppy-raiser community of almost fifty people (spouses and family members included) working with between twenty-four and twenty-nine dogs, who could potentially be trained as guide dogs at the school. A puppy raiser agrees to raise a puppy for a guide dog training facility for the first eighteen to twenty-four months of its life, working on socializing and other basic skills before returning it to the school for formal training. Those who undertake this investment of time, love, and money are special and committed people who genuinely care about animals and are dedicated to having their dogs matched with a blind dog handler.
In investigating this story, we met with puppy raisers of at least eleven EDF dogs. All of these puppy raisers expressed an abiding desire to raise their dogs to fulfill their mission as guides for blind people. Despite (or perhaps because of) this common commitment, all eleven sets of puppy raisers are resolved not to return their assigned animals to EDF while they believe the school is unable to train adequately or care safely for the dogs. Each of these puppy raisers has a compelling personal story of deceit or promises broken by the EDF administration, but the bottom line for each is that each is unwilling to jeopardize his or her investment of time, energy, love, and money by returning a dog to what they believe is an unsafe and unproductive situation. If circumstances were better at Eye Dog Foundation or if alternative arrangements for the welfare and training of the animals could be arranged, each puppy raiser told us that he or she would gladly relinquish the animal for an objective evaluation and possible successful training as a guide dog.
Anna Thomasson, Diana Anderson, Gail Stouthamer, and Barbara Kuhns have voluntarily assumed leadership on behalf of almost all the EDF puppy raisers. They told the Braille Monitor that EDF puppy raisers were left to manage the training of their dogs on their own for the almost four-month period between the resignation of Gonzales and the hiring of Young in late 2007. They report that the administration gave them no notice of this staff transition nor any direction about how they were to care for and train their animals in the interim. Despite being alarmed by this development, they all agreed to resume the bimonthly puppy raiser classes with Young once he started working for EDF.
In addition to the extended interruption in support from EDF during the autumn of 2007, puppy raisers identified other general concerns during 2008, including frustration that trainer recommendations for release of dogs deemed unsuitable to guide were not honored expeditiously, worries that the school was not placing ready dogs with blind candidates, doubts about the school's ability to care for its animals safely, anger that EDF stopped providing regular heartworm and tick medications for the animals, reservations about the low morale and stress of EDF training staff as a result of their work environment, and annoyance at Executive Director Brown's refusal to communicate regularly with them about their grievances.
Following a January 2008 meeting in which Brown did come to Phoenix to meet with the closely bonded community of EDF puppy raisers, she has been unwilling to meet with them again, despite written requests that she do so.
After Young resigned as director of training in July 2008 and Brown hired the unqualified Morin to take charge of the program, most of the puppy raisers decided to stop attending puppy training classes because the classes would not be effective and could be harmful to the animals. Even so, puppy raisers continued to request a meeting with Brown to address the deteriorating safety and training at the school. They say that their requests were met with silence.
In early October John Clark, an Arizona attorney that Brown hired to secure the return of the EDF dogs, started issuing demand letters to most members of the school's puppy-raiser community, threatening legal action if the dogs were not returned in five days. Barbara Kuhns points out that the capacity of the EDF kennels is about twenty, so, if everybody complied with the request, the school would be unable to care for all of the dogs. At or about the same time, Morin resigned his position as EDF director of training, leaving only Denise Warner on campus to care for the dogs. In his October 5 letter of resignation, Morin advised Brown that he was turning over the remaining dogs (there were only two or three on campus at the time) to the puppy raisers since Denise was not at the campus when he decided to leave. Despite Morin's explanation of this action (an action that previous trainers had taken when they terminated their EDF employment), Thomasson and Anderson told us that Brown filed a police report alleging that the dogs had been stolen from the property. Following is the text of the demand letter that Clark sent to Anna Thomasson on behalf of EDF. Since most of the letters were similar, we print this one mostly to show the tone that the EDF adopted toward its volunteers. In response we print a representative reply to a similar demand letter from puppy raiser Gillian Roberts addressed to the EDF’s executive director, which clearly articulates the primary points that all of the puppy raisers are making:
VIA CERTIFIED MAIL RETURN RECEIPT AND REGULAR MAIL
Re: The Eye Dog Foundation Puppy Named Nisha
Dear Ms. Thomasson:
I represent the Eye Dog Foundation (the "Foundation"). Pursuant to the Puppy Raiser Agreement dated January 20, 2007, you were to provide foster care for Nisha. A copy of the Agreement is enclosed.
The Agreement clearly provides that Nisha is the property of the Foundation. Further, in signing this bailment agreement, you undertook certain obligations with respect to the puppy and the Foundation. I understand that you have breached at least two parts of this Agreement. You have not followed the instructions of the staff, and you have not attended all the Training Classes.
DEMAND IS HEREBY MADE that you immediately return Nisha to the Foundation at its office at 8252 South 15th Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85041. If you cannot provide transportation for Nisha, call Dexter Morin or Denise Warner at (602) 276-0051 to arrange transportation.
Please be aware that you have a fiduciary duty to the Foundation. Breach of that duty, such as by attempting to convert the dog to your ownership or as conspiring with others to deprive the Foundation of its property, could subject you to legal liability.
You are also directed to return any of the Foundation's equipment that you borrowed. Nisha and the equipment must be returned within, at the most, five (5) days from the date of this letter to avoid any further proceedings.
If you have any questions regarding this demand letter, please write me at the address set forth above. Do not discuss your concerns with Dexter Morin or Denise Warner.
Very truly yours,
John D. Clark
October 4, 2008
Ms. Gwen Brown
Executive Director, Eye Dog Foundation
VIA CERTIFIED MAIL RETURN RECEIPT AND REGULAR MAIL
Dear Ms. Brown:
I am writing as Noni’s puppy raiser to notify you that the Eye Dog Foundation (EDF) is in breach of its puppy raiser agreement with me. Further, it has become clear from recent actions by EDF and its staff that EDF cannot currently ensure the safety of the animals under its care. I provide a remedy acceptable to me at the end of this letter. I would point out that I am an experienced puppy raiser, having in the past raised dogs for both Canine Companions for Independence and Guide Dogs for the Blind, both well established and well respected organizations. Here are the facts to support my concerns with EDF:
First: I believe that EDF with its currently constituted board of directors and staff is unable or unwilling to fulfill its publicly stated mission of being “dedicated to giving guide dogs to the blind and visually impaired at absolutely no cost to them” <http://www.eyedogfoundation.org>. This mission is also a commitment to the volunteer puppy raisers who pour love, time, and significant money into the care and preparation of a puppy that they believe will be destined for that career. EDF has not graduated a single guide dog team in more than a year, despite the fact that in the spring of 2008 there were several dogs in the kennel ready to be teamed and clients available for them.
Second: EDF has been unable to retain qualified guide dog trainers. In thirteen months, there has been complete turnover of training center staff twice. This includes the loss of three fully-qualified guide dog trainers. The staff currently at the training center is not qualified by any measure recognized within the guide dog industry to be training these dogs and is therefore not competent to run a program that will produce guide dogs that can be safely placed with visually impaired partners.
Third: The puppy raiser agreement requires me to attend classes once per month. This implies that EDF will provide those classes and further that those classes will be conducted by qualified trainers. From mid-September 2007 to early March 2008, almost six months, EDF failed to provide classes for the dogs. During the first four months of this period, at considerable inconvenience to my husband and me, I continued with Noni’s training, including sessions with a number of professional trainers. At any time that EDF has offered classes, I have eagerly attended in accordance with our agreement and only missed class for valid reasons. I attended two sessions with the new staff, during which my only contact was with Denise Warner, puppy coordinator. It was apparent in those sessions that Ms. Warner had absolutely no background with service dogs and no understanding of appropriate training methods. Given that experience, I believe that continuing training with Ms. Warner would be detrimental to Noni’s development as a guide dog.
Fourth: EDF has signaled that it intends to unilaterally redefine what constitutes a release of a dog. In the past, and as understood by the current puppy raisers, the (qualified) director of training determined whether a dog was to be released from the program. Despite this understanding, which is reinforced by consistent past practice and acknowledged by you, Ms. Brown, some of the puppy raisers have been told that the rules have changed and that now you, Ms. Brown, and/or the board must decide whether a dog is to be released from the program. Not only is it impermissible to unilaterally change the terms of our agreement, but in addition, to the knowledge of the puppy raisers, neither you, Ms. Brown, nor any member of the board has the training that would qualify you or them to determine whether a dog should be released from, or retained, in the program.
EDF has given clear indication that it does not intend to honor its contractual obligation to allow puppy raisers the option to adopt the dog they raised if ultimately someone (qualified or not) determines their dog will be released from the program. My agreement states that “if the puppy needs to have a career change, the first priority will be to place it with an appropriate service organization. Second priority will be to place the puppy with original raiser at no cost.” In a meeting with approximately thirty puppy raisers on January 12, 2008, you, Ms. Brown, affirmed our understanding that we would have first rights to our dogs if they are released from the program. When we asked for clarification of the puppy raiser agreement regarding the potential placement with “an appropriate service organization,” you, Ms. Brown, once again assured us that historically dogs have not been placed with other service organizations, and they would be returned to us if they are released.Recent past conduct underscores EDF’s new resistance to returning released dogs to their puppy raisers. In mid-February, the former director of training, Bryan Young, signaled that a number of dogs were to be released from the program, yet four of those dogs were kept in EDF’s kennels for almost five months--until July 5--when they finally were returned to puppy raiser homes.
For EDF to direct that these highly intelligent dogs, raised in family homes and accustomed to daily socialization, not be returned to puppy raiser homes and instead be kept in a kennel after no longer being deemed suitable for guide work is unconscionable and demonstrates a lack of intent to fulfill EDF’s contractual obligation to puppy raisers.
Fifth: It has become clear that the staff at the training center does not have the experience to control the dogs in their care. I know of one recent incident in which one of the dogs at the center was sufficiently injured in a dog fight to require veterinary care. From the information I have, it is clear that staff inexperience was a major contributing factor. I could not conscionably return Noni to an unsafe environment, nor do I believe I would be legally required to do so.
Sixth: On July 5, 2008, EDF abandoned Noni. She was boarding at the training center, one of twelve dogs present, when the training staff resigned and the center abruptly closed down. You, Ms. Brown, had cancelled food orders for the center on June 30 when the center was out of food, possibly leaving the dogs, both boarders and dogs which had been returned to EDF, to starve. It was up to the training staff, acting on their own and concerned for the dogs’ welfare, to purchase food and arrange for care for them, including one dog which required emergency life-saving surgery. We were out of state and had to rely on two other puppy raisers to care for her until we could return.
I am committed absolutely to Noni’s fulfilling her mission as a guide dog. This is why I became involved in the program at EDF. However, I no longer believe that EDF can deliver on its commitments, and, perhaps more importantly, EDF cannot ensure her safety. To resolve this, I request that EDF release Noni to a nationally recognized guide dog organization, or to me on the understanding that I will make due diligence to donate her (with no benefit to me) to an appropriate service dog organization. In either case I will assume the cost and responsibility of delivering her to that organization.
Mr. John D. Clark, Jr, Attorney at Law
Finally, in accordance with a commitment to Clark and the EDF, we print the following statement from the school about the puppy raisers’ failure to honor the demand letters. Here it is:
1. The Eye Dog Foundation for the Blind is a nonprofit California corporation that was established, as the name suggests, to provide guide dogs for the blind. It is authorized to operate in Arizona.
2. The Eye Dog Foundation for the Blind owns more than twenty-five puppies that were placed under bailment contracts with parties who were to raise the puppies, i.e., puppy raisers.
3. Each of the Contracts clearly states that each of the dogs belong to the Foundation, and gives no ownership rights whatsoever to any of the puppy raisers. The puppy raisers merely had the right to raise these puppies.
4. The Contract also stipulates that the puppy raisers were required to comply with the Foundation’s directives regarding the puppies.
5. Last week the Foundation directed each of the puppy raisers in writing to return the Foundation’s puppies to the Foundation within five days.
6. It now appears that the puppy raisers are refusing to comply with the Foundation’s directive to return the Foundation’s puppies.
7. The puppy raisers are apparently attempting to raise a number of specious issues to divert attention away from their clear breaches of the bailment contracts. None of these issues give the puppy raisers the right to deprive the Foundation of its puppies, which is what the puppy raisers are apparently attempting to do.
Seemingly backed into a corner and with no access to legal representation to fight against this multimillion dollar organization, the EDF puppy raisers contacted the offices of the Attorneys General in both Arizona and California. Receiving no satisfactory response from these authorities, they then approached the Braille Monitor and the local ABC affiliate in Phoenix to register their concerns and to attract attention to the issues occurring at the school. Following is the text of the story found on the Website of the local ABC affiliate in Phoenix that accompanied the brief video spot that was also produced and aired in early October:
A custody battle is brewing over twenty-five "service dogs in training" in the Phoenix area. The future service animals are owned by the Eye Dog Foundation for the Blind, a California-based nonprofit group that operates a training center in Phoenix. But a large group of volunteers, foster families that agreed to help raise the dogs, are refusing to return them.
"I couldn't feel comfortable handing this dog back to a foundation that is not functioning and feel good about it," Diana Anderson said. Anderson and twenty-five other volunteers entered into agreements with the foundation to provide the dogs a home and bring them to training sessions at the foundation's facility in south Phoenix.
The goal of the foundation is to train the dogs and then place them with the blind. But volunteers like Eldon Ploetz say the foundation is in shambles, that dogs are not receiving the necessary training, and they claim not a single dog has been placed with a blind person in more than a year. Ploetz and his wife have helped raise and foster Kiesha, a German shepherd.
In late September Ploetz received a letter from the Eye Dog Foundation's attorney stating, "DEMAND IS HEREBY MADE that you immediately return Kiesha to the Foundation." The letter continues, "I understand that you have breached at least two parts of this Agreement. You have not followed the instructions of the staff, and you have not attended all the Training Classes." Other volunteers received similar letters.
But the volunteers claim the trainers are not properly certified, and the ones that have been hired have not stayed on with the foundation. Additionally, they say the Foundation had been shut down for weeks and they have neglected the dogs.
"We understand they cut off the food for the dogs that were in the kennel," Ploetz said. Ploetz's wife said she would rather go to jail than give Kiesha back to the foundation.
"They are valid concerns," said DaCoda Whittemore, a former operations manager who worked at the foundation's training facility for only a week. Whittemore said the dogs are "absolutely" receiving better care with the foster families, "not just because the management isn't functioning properly, but there’s no staff qualified at the foundation at this point to be able to take and care for these dogs properly." Dexter Morin, a former trainer at the facility, agreed with Whittemore, submitting his resignation earlier this month.
Before leaving, Morin turned over several dogs to the foster families rather than leaving them alone at the training facility. In his resignation letter, Morin wrote, "I contacted the puppy raisers to inform them of my concerns of leaving the dogs on the premises without the guarantee that they would be attended to." Morin goes on to say, "I in good conscience turned them over to the puppy raisers for the safe keeping of the dogs."
The Eye Dog Foundation and its attorney have declined our repeated requests for an on-camera interview. In a statement to ABC 15, the Foundation's attorney, John D. Clark, wrote, "The contract clearly states that each of the dogs belong to the Foundation, and gives no ownership rights whatsoever to any of the puppy raisers." The letter goes on to state that "the Foundation directed each of the puppy raisers in writing to return the Foundation's puppies to the Foundation within five days. It now appears that the puppy raisers are refusing to comply with the Foundation's directive."
There you have the ABC story. In an effort to resolve the impasse amicably, EDF puppy-raiser leaders Anna Thomasson and Gail Stouthamer initiated a dialogue with Clark to find a solution to the custody problem acceptable to all parties. Among the suggestions that the puppy raisers offered were to turn the dogs over to a functioning guide dog school equipped to evaluate and train the dogs for guiding service if appropriate. Optimism about resolution of this matter was briefly high among the puppy raisers following signs of good-faith conversations with Clark, but he abruptly ended the settlement talks after receiving a request from the Braille Monitor to interview his client for this story.
No further progress on resolving the standoff between concerned puppy raisers and the foundation has been realized since Clark's retaliatory measures against the puppy raisers for their decision to alert the Braille Monitor to this story. Afraid of the financial and legal liability that they will all face as a result of their collective decision to engage in this act of civil disobedience in support of producing high-quality guide dogs for blind consumers and for the welfare of the animals themselves, puppy-raiser leaders say that they are nevertheless resolved to do the right thing on principle. The puppy raisers are looking for legal representation, but to date they have been unsuccessful in finding counsel willing to advocate for them pro bono.
Throughout this long ordeal some EDF puppy raisers have reported feeling varying degrees of intimidation from and fear of Gwen Brown. Thomasson, for instance, received several unidentified cell phone calls on October 7, 2008, in which the caller, who Thomasson believes to have been Brown, said, "Ok, Anna Thomasson. It's me and you, me and you and Barbara Kuhns. We're going to go for it, okay? Me and you--you and me, okay?" Later this same week Thomasson received an anonymous large envelope in the mail which contained letters addressed to Gwen Brown that had been resealed with tape. Another puppy raiser, who had initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, called to insist that his name not be used for fear that Brown or one of her "operatives" would somehow harm his family or the dog that he had raised. Several sources for this story also report having had conversations with Brown in which she has made threatening comments like, "I can't wait until the Lord makes my enemies my footstools" and other vague but pointed remarks. Finally, Anderson told the Braille Monitor that she was quite disturbed when Brown ended an unpleasant telephone conversation with her with the comment, "Oh, so you have children, do you?"
Several EDF consumers told the Braille Monitor of instances of nonresponsive or insensitive treatment at Brown’s hands. Patricia Kepler of Oregon said that Brown was unresponsive to the fact that her dog had been injured on public transportation, and she explained that her dog was offered no retraining or post-accident evaluation services. Instead, Robert Torence of the Seeing Eye generously came out to help her work with her dog. She says that both the Seeing Eye and Guide Dogs for the Blind have been invaluable to EDF consumers since the school has essentially stopped functioning. She also cited an instance in which Brown told her simply to go to Pet Smart when she needed a replacement leash for her guide dog. "Of course any responsible administrator of a reputable guide dog school knows better than to recommend that a student use a pet leash for the taxing work that a service animal performs," Kepler said. Finally, Veronica Elsea of California told the Braille Monitor that she has been trying to get a guide dog from EDF since July 2007, and she reports having received the application only within the last few weeks.
The final facet of this story involves allegations that Gwen Brown, on behalf of EDF, attempted to make or made inappropriate withdrawals from EDF of California and EDF of Arizona bank accounts. As previously reported, Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona was a distinct entity from Eye Dog Foundation of California that existed largely to manage minor Arizona-related matters for the school. According to Eldon Ploetz, EDF puppy raiser and treasurer of the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona, Brown was never a member of the governing board or a financial signatory on bank records of this small Arizona entity. Ploetz accuses Brown of inappropriately withdrawing ten thousand dollars from an Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona account, but he acknowledges that, once the bank realized its error and asked her to return the funds, she did so. Schiffres, on behalf of Brown and EDF, explains this incident in his letter of October 27, 2008, as follows:
Ms. Brown did withdraw $10,000 from an Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona account at Wells Fargo Bank. She went to a Claremont branch of Wells Fargo and filled out a withdrawal form (in the absence of having any available checks) and presented appropriate identification. The bank teller (name unknown) checked the bank’s signature card records to confirm Ms. Brown’s authority to make the withdrawal. Ms. Brown advises that the teller appeared also to have obtained the approval of the bank manager. The withdrawal was thus approved, and Ms. Brown received $10,000. She used same to pay counsel on behalf of Eye Dog Foundation for work performed on its behalf.
Approximately two weeks later the Wells Fargo branch manager called Ms. Brown, advising her that she was not shown as a signatory on the account and requesting that the monies be repaid. Ms. Brown’s response was that he should double-check his records because she was in fact an authorized signer, as was confirmed by the teller. The manager then responded that the names on the account were two other board members, Ms. Wonderley and Mr. Harris, and he claimed Ms. Brown had never been a signatory on the account.
Although the bank manager's information that Ms. Brown lacked authority to make a withdrawal on the subject account was incorrect, rather than argue the point, Ms. Brown simply took the pragmatic approach. She used her own personal funds to reimburse the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona account at Wells Fargo Bank in response to the Bank’s request, thereby to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It was subsequently learned that the receiver had apparently empowered Wendy Wonderley and Louis Harris to take over control of that account, and they had presented the bank with documentation that superseded the bank authorization for Ms. Brown to sign on the account. This was not revealed to Ms. Brown at the time or to her counsel; nor was the Bank subsequently informed by Ms. Wonderley or Mr. Harris, or by the receiver, that upon extinguishing the receivership, control of the account had reverted to Eye Dog Foundation’s board, of which Ms. Brown was its duly elected executive director. Had either notice been provided, the entire episode would never have occurred.
In the face of such contradictory information, the Braille Monitor is unable to verify fully or accurately where the truth in this incident actually lies, but we have records (minutes and the articles of incorporation for the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona) that show that Ms. Brown was not a member of this organization's governing body. Nevertheless, no doubt can exist that, while the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona and the Eye Dog Foundation of California were separate legal entities, these organizations worked together in an allied cause. Subsequent to the dissolution of the EDF receivership, Mr. Ploetz reports that Brown, in her capacity as EDF executive director, has now entirely drained the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona bank account and has absorbed its resources into the Eye Dog Foundation of California operation. Ploetz alleges that Brown had no right to do this since she has never had anything to do with this entity. He reports that he filed a criminal complaint with the IRS regarding Brown's second Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona withdrawal in the spring of this year. Without resources to operate the Eye Dog Foundation of Arizona, Ploetz told us that its board dissolved the small Arizona-based organization in the spring of 2008. In response to this second allegation, Schiffres said, "Your letter references a pending IRS criminal probe into Ms. Brown's alleged taking of funds from Eye Dog of Arizona ("EDA") accounts. We are not aware of any such inquiry. However, we are unaware of any claimed impropriety regarding said accounts by Ms. Brown. We therefore must question the accuracy of your information."
Both Ploetz and Wonderley tell the Braille Monitor that Brown also attempted inappropriately to withdraw $30,000 from an EDF of California account, but they both confirm that this attempted transaction was ultimately blocked by the bank and that these funds were never taken. Counsel for Ms. Brown, however, contradicts this claim and explains the incident like this:
Your letter references an attempted withdrawal of funds from Arizona accounts. The true facts are as follows: As you are presumably aware, several years ago the Eye Dog Foundation board was provided a statement of resignation by Lequita McKay, executive director. The resignation was understood to include her director position and a new executive director--Ms. Gwen Brown--was voted in. Then Ms. McKay and her supporters on the board claimed that she did not intend to resign as director, leading to a board deadlock. This, in turn, led to a lawsuit and the imposition of a receiver. Following Ms. McKay's death, which mooted the issue of board deadlock, and the presentation of opposition proof and briefing, the court held in favor of the Gwen Brown faction of the board and made an order extinguishing the receivership. Unfortunately, the practical effects of the suit, receivership, and elimination of the receivership, lasted much longer. Several months passed during which we were unable to get court orders signed for the reinstatement of the new board and Ms. Brown. The result was a major dislocation of the Foundation's business. It is in this context that this and your other questions must be considered.
On a date subsequent to the receiver’s appointment, Eye Dog Foundation received a letter from Citibank advising of a maturing six-month CD. Ms. Brown and another board member, Mr. Hannon, responded by going to the Citibank branch in Upland with the intention of ascertaining Eye Dog Foundation’s available options for the handling of the CD precisely because the account was at the time in receivership. They met and spoke to a Ms. Hong and specifically advised her that the account was subject to the receivership. Ms. Hong responded that notwithstanding what she was being told by Ms. Brown and Mr. Hannon, there was "no hold" on the account. She indicated she would have to contact her home office to obtain further instructions. Ms. Brown believes that Mr. Hannon signed a document given to him by Ms. Hong at that time. Ms. Hong stated that the document was needed in order for her to make the home office inquiry. That was the extent of the first visit to Citibank, which occurred on a Friday. The following Monday or Tuesday Ms. Brown had a telephone conversation with Ms. Hong. Ms. Hong this time advised that the account should have been blocked. Consequently, Ms. Brown and Mr. Hannon thought the matter was resolved. They gave Ms. Hong no instructions concerning the maturing CD because, upon receiving the bank’s confirmation that the CD was on hold, meant they had no power or authority to act with regard to same. There was no attempt to withdraw $30,000 from the Citibank account.
This is what we know. The Braille Monitor has been careful in reporting this story to keep our narration to facts or circumstances confirmed by at least two people. What we personally believe as a result of our investigation, however, could fill several more pages.
Blind consumers, oversight authorities, and others interested in the welfare of guide dogs should understand that the Eye Dog Foundation is clearly in trouble. They currently have no dog trainers on staff who meet industry standards for working with guide dogs. The qualified trainers that they did employ have resigned, citing the hostile and oppressive work environment created by Executive Director Brown, who seems to know little about the day-to-day issues of guide dog instruction or practice. The school has not issued a guide dog to a blind handler in well over a year. The caring and conscientious EDF volunteer puppy-raising community is so concerned about the absence of quality training and the general safety of the dogs that they are engaged in an unprecedented act of civil disobedience, willingly submitting themselves to legal jeopardy for their principles. And the EDF governing board (an insular body indeed, in which its members’ contact details are not readily available to the public and most of its members will not speak about their knowledge of events) is now merely a rubber stamp for Brown, since all the members who disagreed with the current administration have died or resigned in frustration. We note that, to the best of our knowledge, no consumers have ever served on the EDF board. This is a distressing situation to be sure. Finally, the EDF operates under a dark shadow while it remains under investigation from the California Attorney General and the IRS.
Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) should probably be the watch phrase for those who have dealings with the Eye Dog Foundation in future. Only time will tell what will happen with this organization. We sincerely hope that matters can be resolved. The blind of America can only benefit from a well-run guide dog school that specializes in the training of German Shepherds, but at present the prospects for the foundation seem poor.