Animal shelter audit begins amid controversy

County Comptroller: Politics will not play a role in investigation


First steps were taken last week in a county audit of the Hempstead Animal Shelter in Wantagh.

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman told the Herald on Feb. 14 that an “entrance conference” took place earlier in the day, launching an investigation of the $4 million operation, which has been the center of controversy for years over allegations of nepotism and accusations that animals have been mistreated.

The team is “putting their plan together to look at how money is being spent, and to look at the financials of the shelter,” Schnirman said. “But that doesn’t mean just looking at lines in the budget books, and expenditures, but personnel as well. Who are the people that are working there?”

George Maragos, the former county comptroller who ran unsuccessfully for county executive in 2017, began an audit of the shelter in January 2017. He was accused by former Town Supervisor Anthony Santino of undertaking the audit for political reasons, and the process was halted in April when a county judge found that Maragos was overreaching with the scope of the audit.

Schnirman said that, while the decision on Maragos’ audit is being appealed, his office has launched its own, “squarely in line with what the judge ruled.”

The audit was requested by current Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, who said in a statement earlier this month that residents have “flooded my inbox with grievances, which I believe merits an independent outside audit.”

Gillen said that she wants Schnirman’s office to “determine if the shelter has gone off-track.”

Gillen has faced mounting public calls for a look at the shelter’s operations, evidenced by residents making their voices heard at recent town board meetings.

At the board’s Feb. 6 meeting, Wantagh resident Stephanie Capuano pleaded with Gillen and the board to improve the shelter’s facilities, referencing “disgusting, peeled paint,” and calling the shelter’s director, Michael Pastore, unqualified.

Pastore has been in charge of the shelter since 2014, when he was hired by former Town Supervisor Kate Murray.

At the same meeting, resident and longtime shelter critic Diane Madden, who has an ongoing federal lawsuit against the town, Santino and Pastore, thanked Gillen for moving forward with the audit, and vowed to carry her lawsuit to trial.

“I want it on the record what’s been going on in this town, and what’s been going on at that shelter,” she said.

Baldwin resident Valerie Lamp addressed the board in tears on Feb. 6, alleging that volunteers at the shelter were discouraging people from adopting animals, and calling for the removal of Pastore.

“We care about the animals … we don’t care who does what for a living,” she said. “We just care about compassion for the animals.”

Schnirman said that he is aware of the emotions and politics involved in the ongoing shelter controversies, and that they will not be a factor in the audit. “It’s not going to be a ‘gotcha’ investigation,” he said.

“We’re not going to referee any political fights,” he said. “We’re here to do an audit, and that’s what we’re going to do. The facts will speak for themselves.”

Still, according to Schnirman, his team will be making recommendations and making sure that employees there “are doing the job they were hired to do.”

“Big picture-wise, the animals in the shelter deserve our best efforts,” Schnirman said. “We want to make sure they’re well taken care of.”

“The audit process that Supervisor Gillen welcomed is intended to independently and accurately assess many of the complaints regarding the animal shelter, and hopefully provide answers to those seeking them,” said Gillen spokesman Mike Fricchione on Monday. “Once the comptroller’s office publishes their findings and recommendations, the supervisor will review, and then determine, what follow-up actions are necessary.”