INDIAN SHORES — Ralph Heath, founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, was arrested and charged with workers' compensation fraud over the weekend.
Heath, 68, was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on Saturday by Indian Shores police and later released on his own recognizance.
Heath is accused of operating the sanctuary for seven months without workers' compensation insurance as required by state law. Part of that time, Heath was also allegedly operating in defiance of a stop work order issued because of the lack of insurance coverage, according to a sworn affidavit filed by an investigator with the state Department of Financial Services' Division of Insurance Fraud.
The affidavit says Heath admitted operating the sanctuary from March 11, 2012, through Oct. 12, 2012, without the necessary insurance.
"It just came literally out of the blue," Heath said Tuesday. "We had no idea we had done anything wrong or had a problem."
Heath said he has not talked to any investigators recently about workers' compensation insurance and he denied signing an affidavit admitting that he broke the law. He also denied knowing about a stop work order. Heath conceded the sanctuary was without workers' compensation insurance for a short time, but said it was a problem caused by the insurance carrier who did not inform him of the lapse. When he found out, it was cured, Heath said.
"We didn't intentionally operate without insurance," Heath said. "As far as we knew, we were completely A-okay."
His arrest is the latest in a line of woes for the sanctuary, which has attained an international reputation as a top avian rehabilitation center since Heath, a zoologist, founded it in 1971.
Many of those troubles stem from money problems. Last year, the Internal Revenue Service filed three liens against the sanctuary for unpaid taxes.
This year, the state filed a lien for unpaid reemployment taxes. Federal officials filed an additional tax lien. And Ronald Cooper filed a lawsuit to foreclose on a mortgage on property the sanctuary owns on Starkey Road. A final judgment of foreclosure was granted last week.
Heath said he's working to get enough money to pay the debt and does not expect to lose the property.
But the troubles have taken their toll. The sanctuary announced at the end of January it would no longer take in sick and injured birds. Then, in March, the sanctuary was forced to close its hospital after supervisor Barbara Suto left.
The sanctuary has remained open to visitors and has continued to raise money. In recent weeks, officials there hoped to be able to reopen the hospital if fundraising went well.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.