RTÉ Investigates has learned that following a protracted row with the Charities Regulator the Kerry based charity Animal Heaven Animal Rescue (AHAR) has agreed to accept four trustees nominated by the Charity Regulator.
Last month, Animal Heaven Animal Rescue (AHAR) refused to act on a demand from the Regulator that it accept two nominees, ISPCA CEO Andrew Kelly and David Hall, CEO of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation. RTÉ Investigates understands that the Regulator has been concerned about financial governance and other issues at the charity.
In a private Facebook message to supporters last month AHAR founder and manager Suzanne Gibbons described the Regulator’s move as a "take over" and in a public video posted on the charity’s Facebook page on September 16th she said that it would "change the very ethos of AHAR."
RTÉ understands this was the first time the Charities Regulator had faced such a challenge from a charity. The Regulator responded to the defiance by doubling the number of its nominees for the AHAR board. It also demanded that the current AHAR chairman be replaced by David Hall. On Monday AHAR capitulated and said it would accept the Regulator’s demands. According to sources, if it had not agreed to accept this arrangement by the close of business Monday it would have faced immediate High Court action.
Aside from David Hall the other nominees are accountant Paul Nolan, Diarmaid Ó Corrbuí, the CEO of Carmichael which advises non-profit organisations, and John Hogan, a business consult-ant who previously served as a director of the Citizens Information Board. The four men are expected to be confirmed at the next meeting of the current AHAR board. Andrew Kelly of the ISPCA has withdrawn from consideration.
Previously, the Charities Regulator took action against AHAR in January 2017 after it found the charity was in breach of the law by not maintaining proper accounts. AHAR rectified its affairs and the following March the Regulator stated AHAR was now keeping proper accounts and that it would not prosecute the then trustees of the charity.
The intervention in January 2017 was announced on the day of an RTÉ Investigates report ex-posing significant corporate governance problems and misleading fundraising practices at the animal rescue, which recorded income of €462,000 in 2016 and boasts almost 190,000 Face-book followers. While the programme did not suggest that the organisation's money had been misappropriated, it found that substantial cash withdrawals and limited receipting had led to an overall lack of financial transparency.
A spokesperson for the Regulator confirmed on Monday that it was "engaging with the trustees of AHAR on issues regarding management and governance of the charity," but declined to comment further. It is believed that while the Regulator’s concerns relate primarily to financial governance at the charity, it is also concerned over the source of the animals that AHAR uses for fundraising purposes. Typically, AHAR puts photos or videos of dogs on its Facebook page and requests donors to donate for the animals’ care.
It buys many of these animals, a rescue-through-purchase practice that critics say feeds the market for backyard dog breeders. AHAR claims it is often the only way to save animals at risk.
Internal correspondence at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine released to RTÉ Investigates under Freedom of Information legislation reflects Departmental concerns that AHAR was simply buying dogs directly from dealers. One email from an official regarding the source of 12 dogs that the charity claimed to rescue from dire circumstances in January 2017 stated "My concern is this is a ‘dog dealer’ and these are not really rescue dogs." In another email an official cast doubt on AHAR’s explanation that the 12 dogs arrived to the charity after a dog warden threatened to seize them from their owner."I have checked with the dog wardens," the official stated, "but they know nothing about these dogs as neither do I." The Department of Agriculture is tasked with monitoring animal welfare at animal charities.
Other correspondence later in the year reflected continued concerns in the Department about the source of other dogs that AHAR claimed to have purchased at fairs. In a July 2017 email, an inspector wrote, "Pressure must be put [on AHAR] on the source of the dogs. We do not believe that they are from the fairs."
In a letter to the AHAR chairman in November a senior official from the Department of Agricul-ture, wrote that one of its inspectors had "fundamental concerns with regards to AHAR, includ-ing the non-disclosure of the sources of rescued dogs, the failure to report instances of poten-tial welfare problems in situations where AHAR has deemed it necessary to rescue animals..."
In a statement to RTÉ AHAR said "In reference to sources of rescued dogs AHAR keeps uni-formed records of every dog, where it comes from, its veterinary work and any other issues whilst at AHAR up until the dogs are re-homed, as all rescues are required to do. We do report situations where there are welfare issues, but as you can understand we along with every other rescue in Ireland are not allowed to ask for proof of identity of the persons giving us the ani-mals. We therefore can only record the details given to us at this time."
Previous reports by RTÉ Investigates on AHAR: