Toni O’Neil, executive director of Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary in Hubert, said last week that a sad – and possibly expensive – chapter in the sanctuary’s storied history is coming to an end.
“As founder of Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary I have dedicated the past 30 years to helping save injured and orphaned wildlife and to educate the public about preserving their habitats and conserving our natural resources,” she said in an email to supporters. “These are extremely important goals for me and PAWS was created … to meet them and inspire others to do the same.” (See related story.)
Sometime this month, O’Neil and the PAWS board of directors expect to face the N.C. Department of Labor over what she said are dubious claims by a former employee. She declined to provide the name of the employee.
But O’Neil states the former employee, supported by members of the past board of directors, is claiming to be owed salary, overtime and compensatory time that amounts to “thousands of dollars.” O’Neil said that because time sheets, work records and other pertinent wage and collection data cannot be retrieved, state labor officials tell her that PAWS will likely have to pay.
The problems for O’Neil and PAWS began in 2015, she said, when her husband, Denny, was sick and needed her care. He died in 2017. She said she asked the board of the nonprofit to take on more of a role in the operation of the sanctuary.
“I needed to depend more on the board,” she said.
What happened next came out of the blue. Two of the three board members running PAWS – O’Neil would not provide the names citing the possibility of litigation – voted her off the board. It came as a blow to O’Neil who not only set up PAWS but also owns the property on which it operates. The fact that PAWS achieved nonprofit status meant the board was empowered to make that kind of a decision, according to O’Neil. So, she said she soldiered on saying, “I’ll try not to be bitter.”
“I admit to being a gullible person who only believes in the good of others,” she said in the email to supporters. “Since I do not lie or steal, I would never suspect others of doing the same. Imagine my shock and grief at the betrayal by former employees and board members who did! They literally are destroying this wonderful nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the lives of animals and birds. Records were not reliable, policies disregarded, financial irregularities abounded without check by the past board, and work hours and time sheets falsified.”
Arising from what O’Neil said appeared to be a difference of opinion over the direction of the sanctuary, the board ran roughshod, she said. Staff was fired and habitats were eliminated. Along with the focus on restoring orphaned and injured wildlife to the wild, PAWS employed “ecotherapy” – what O’Neil calls the CENTER Program – animal-handling therapy for community members through volunteerism, including children with autism and dyslexia.
“I’m very pleased with the outcome of these programs and the involvement with young children and special needs high school students,” O’Neil said. “We receive grant funding from the United Way specifically for these successful programs. However, the board wanted to end that and focus solely on working with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder handling raptors in a specific partnership with Wounded Warriors-Battalion East.”
Of the change of mission, O’Neil said, “It was very hard for me to take.”
During this time, the board hired the education director now at the center of the financial controversy. Also, the board refurbished and furnished – at some cost – the nearby interns’ quarters.
The education director was allowed to live in the house at “a greatly reduced fee,” according to O’Neil.
“The new board was unable to evict them because of the improper sublease,” she said.
O’Neil said that while she was shut out of much of the day-to-day operation of PAWS, she was aware of what she said were financial irregularities.
“Organizations that had scheduled education programs with staff in the past always were asked to pay by check or through ACH to the PAWS bank account,” she said. “I noticed that this was no longer happening and the program service fees were not showing up in the bank or in the mail.”
Soon after noting her concerns, she said, she was removed from all aspects of PAWS finances.
“I was demoted from executive director to technical director and told that I had no business being involved in nor allowed to be concerned about any financial aspects of the organization,” she said.
O’Neil said she was extremely frustrated. The two active members of the board allowed this staff member free rein. O’Neil said her suggestions and complaints were ignored. “Staff who disagreed with them were fired.”
About this time, in mid-2020, PAWS invited Quality Enhancement for Nonprofit Organizations of Wilmington to provide an assessment. According to the University of North Carolina Wilmington website, QENO is an initiative, “designed to improve the capabilities and competencies of nonprofit organizations in New Hanover and surrounding counties.”
As a result of that assessment, O’Neil said the two active board members issued an ultimatum: Either O’Neil had to leave the organization or they would resign. “This is my home,” O’Neil said, “I wasn’t going anywhere.” The board members resigned.
A new board – “outstanding community members and people who I knew loved animals and believed in what Possumwood Acres stood for” – was put in place, O’Neil said.
This new board took over in June with the understanding that the former board would help with a transition, according to O’Neil. “That did not happen. Instead, the board was blocked at every turn.”
O’Neil was made executive director again and was elected to current board.
But, with the new board locked out of social media accounts, financial records, billing information, employee data and various other records, the problems continued.
As a result, O’Neil said that after the education director at the center of the financial controversy left in September, the new board was presented with time sheets that can’t be checked. “I think we’ve been defrauded here.”
She fears the worst. “It’s all going to come to a head,” O’Neil said, when the Department of Labor rules on the claims of nonpayment. “Because we have to pay all this, we can’t hire anyone. The Department of Labor is going to cut our bank account down to nothing.”
“These actions by others will have a serious impact and create major negative impacts on the wildlife rehabilitation operations we will be able to perform for this year,” she notes in the email. “Our educational programs will have to be curtailed. Their greed and dishonesty will prevent us from being able to do all that we had planned for 2021. We survived the COVID restrictions and shortages of volunteers and interns only to fall prey to stealing and deliberate financial mismanagement.”
A different kind of problem surfaced in August when the Wildlife Resources Commission – in response to a complaint – raided the Richlands home of PAWS volunteer Kelsey Gaylor. Technical director with PAWS, Gaylor specializes in rehabilitating reptiles.
At that time, Gaylor was the rehabilitation coordinator and had been taking the critical care patients to her home for specialized one-on-one care because there was no one to do this. O’Neil said she was caring for all the birds inside her home. The few remaining volunteers and interns who had come back were able to handle some of the noncritical care patients at the sanctuary.
According to O’Neil, the WRC raid was predicated on the claim that Gaylor was unlicensed. O’Neil and Gaylor said the paperwork was submitted to the state on time but that for whatever reason – possibly the global pandemic – the license was delayed in being returned. “It was all because a piece of paper did not come in on time,” O’Neil said. “It was handled the next day.”
Taken in that raid were turtles, a possum, an osprey, an owl, squirrels and various other animals, none of which – despite the case being cleared – have been returned, according to O’Neil.
“The Wildlife Resources Commission would not even tell us where they were taking them,” she said, expressing extreme disappointment in the way the matter was handled. “They never attempted to verify the information with us at all … going to such an extreme action on a misunderstanding easily rectified.”
“Luckily a brand new board of directors has taken over our nonprofit organization to begin to correct the problems and work on retrieving the funds that were taken from Possumwood Acres,” O’Neil tells her supporters. “I am so pleased and proud of these brave men and women who have pledged to bring us back to being a premiere wildlife sanctuary for Onslow County. They have stepped up to take their board responsibilities and fiduciary transparency promises seriously. There will be no discrepancies or mismanagement allowed now that they have taken control of Possumwood Acres and are taking the actions necessary to make sure this can never happen again.”
For O’Neil and the new leadership at PAWS, the most important thing now – in addition to caring for wildlife – is to restore any trust that might have been lost over the past few years. “The new board is not responsible for this,” she said. “We don’t want anyone worried that our standards have slipped.”
She said plans are underway to introduce donors to the current board as way to sort out any misunderstandings.
“We want them to know that their funds were not misappropriated or used incorrectly,” O’Neil said. “I made sure that the programs they funded were managed correctly and that all the funds were used appropriately. I hope they will visit the sanctuary and actually see their funding in action, helping care for the animals and supporting our CENTER programs for students. We want to make sure that the bad actions of a few past associates do not ruin their impression of us as a non-profit dedicated to the community.”
“We will feel the effects of the past dishonesty for a while but I believe that good will prevail,” O’Neil said in the email. “Honest hearts will help us replace the funding so that we can continue to care for over 2,200 bird and animal patients this year. The baby seasons are beginning and we need to be financially stable to begin. Please help if you believe in what we do. Help me to regain faith in my fellow human beings again and show that not everyone is motivated by greed.”
Email Jimmy Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the Feb. 10, 2021, Tideland News.