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U.S. Labor Department investigating Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary

A cattle egret is released in a North Pinellas field by Ralph Heath of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. Heath founded the avian rehabilitation center in 1971. It has emergency facilities, a surgical center, and indoor and outdoor rehabilitation areas. 

Times (2003)

A cattle egret is released in a North Pinellas field by Ralph Heath of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. Heath founded the avian rehabilitation center in 1971. It has emergency facilities, a surgical center, and indoor and outdoor rehabilitation areas. 

INDIAN SHORES — U.S. officials say they are investigating the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary for possible violations of federal labor laws.

Specifically, the Department of Labor is examining payroll records and interviewing employees about possible violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, said DOL spokesman Mike D'Aquino. Minimum wage, overtime, child labor and record keeping are all covered by the FLSA, he said Friday.

Meanwhile, two former employees say paychecks were not regular and the sanctuary allowed workers' health insurance policies to lapse without informing them they were no longer covered.

"It got up to five weeks (with my) not getting paid," Vicki Churchill said Friday. Churchill held several positions during her five years with the sanctuary. When she left in February, Churchill was managing the gift shop and responding to the rescue hotline.

She found out her health insurance policy had lapsed when "I got a thing from the insurance company saying I wasn't covered anymore." Even though she was no longer covered by insurance, Churchill said money for health insurance continued to be taken out of her paycheck.

Michelle Simoneau, a former corporate secretary and fundraiser for the sanctuary who left in February 2011, said the problems are ongoing. Her daughter worked there until last month and is still owed money.

Sanctuary founder/director Ralph Heath could not be reached for comment. But operations manager Micki Eslick said the DOL investigation is over. She denied there was any wrongdoing. No sanctuary official could be reached later in the day to comment about the charges by former employees.

Heath, 67, a zoologist, founded the sanctuary in 1971. It has grown into a model avian rehabilitation center with emergency facilities, a surgical center, and indoor and outdoor rehabilitation areas. Sanctuary literature says up to 10,000 injured wild birds are treated each year.

The sanctuary, 18328 Gulf Blvd., is supported by private donations. Records filed with the IRS show the sanctuary had total revenues of about $1.47 million and total expenses of about $1.44 million for the 2010 calendar year, the most recent figures available. It's unclear how many employees currently work there.

But for all its successes, the sanctuary has had problems.

As far back as 1996, Heath was accused of overstating the effect of a cold winter on wild seabirds in a fundraising letter. Heath said in the letter that birds faced "the possibility of famine" because of the weather. But wildlife experts said the seabird population was stable.

The next year, Heath's expenditures came into question over a gulf-front home and a yacht the sanctuary bought.

Heath said the house, which cost $300,000, was an investment.

The Whisker was a yacht the sanctuary bought in 1988 for $355,000. It was one of at least 14 boats owned by the sanctuary. One was used to rescue birds; others were donated and were for sale.

The Whisker was supposed to bring in money from charter fees, but Heath also used the boat to host parties for supporters and potential donors. He took the yacht to the Bahamas for up to a month at a time. Heath said the trips were to research the effects of plastic pollution on the ocean floor.

In 2007, the sanctuary was forced to close for two days after it failed to pay workers compensation insurance. Three years later, the sanctuary hit rough financial times caused in part by the recession and escalating costs. There was talk of drastically cutting back its services.

Most recently, the IRS has filed liens for unpaid payroll taxes. The first, filed April 6 with the Pinellas County Clerk's Office, was for $109,283. Heath said then that the sanctuary got behind because donations had been slow.

On Aug. 8, the IRS filed a second lien of about $37,677 for unpaid payroll taxes. The agency filed a third lien of about $40,766 for unpaid payroll taxes on Sept. 20, according to county records. All liens remain unpaid, according to Pinellas records.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

U.S. Labor Department investigating Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary 10/12/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 13, 2012 12:08am]
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