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Report finds chance Tampa clinic invented fake pets to get county funds

TAMPA — Last November, Bruce C. Ungerer received notice from Hillsborough County that it was nearly time to renew the annual registrations for his two dogs and five cats.

Trouble is, Ungerer owns two dogs, Poco and Taz, but no cats.

An investigator for the county has turned up multiple instances in which pet owners say nonexisting animals have been registered in their names. Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said he will ask the Sheriff's Office today to look into whether there were any criminal violations.

The pet owners in question each have three things in common, heightening concern:

• All are low-income.

• Each qualified for a voucher program that enabled them to have their pets neutered, obtain a license and get a rabies shot for their animals at next to no cost. They got the vouchers by proving they receive public assistance and paying $10 per animal. They took those vouchers to a veterinarian, who was reimbursed for each sterilization by the county.

• Almost all of the pet owners used the same veterinary clinic, the Animal Coalition of Tampa at 1719 W Lemon St., whose operators are vocal voucher advocates.

The investigative report, shared with county commissioners this week, documents seven curious and possibly fictitious pet registrations, all but two of them originating from ACT.

The pet owners say they received registration renewal notices close to a year after getting their animals sterilized at the clinic that included multiple cats that they don't own. Others say they were asked by clinic employees to write in additional pet names on an application.

The program allowed residents to get subsidized sterilizations for up to eight animals.

The upshot, the investigation concludes, is that ACT and other veterinary clinics may be getting reimbursed by the county for sterilizations of nonexisting animals or strays. The investigation couldn't determine that for sure.

"That's part of the problem: There's not evidence one way or the other," Merrill said. "That's why the report recommends that it be turned over to the Sheriff's Office."

Frank Hamilton, president of the board that runs ACT, said he had not seen the report. But he said if employees encouraged customers to submit fake pet names, they would be fired.

The report by the county indicates a supervisor in Animal Services reported that within the past year several people voiced similar complaints after getting pets neutered at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.

The supervisor, operations director Dennis McCullough, said he suspected the Humane Society was using reimbursements to pay for a program through which it traps, neuters then releases feral cats.

McCullough told the investigator that when he raised that concern with the Humane Society's executive director, voucher reimbursement requests fell.

Attempts Thursday evening to reach Humane Society director Sherry Silk were not successful.

Hamilton said his clinic does not engage in such a practice.

"To the best of my knowledge, I would say, no, we haven't done that," Hamilton said. "That's not our policy."

The county has had the voucher program in place since 2002 in an attempt to cut down on animal euthanizations. Some 20 veterinarians are registered to provide the service.

Since 2002, the county has spent $2.1 million on reimbursements. Just more than half went to ACT and the Humane Society.

Until recently, pet owners could apply directly to participating veterinarians for vouchers. Now, as a result of the investigation, pet owners must apply directly to the county.

"That will avoid the problem that existed," said Dick Bailey, interim Animal Services director.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Report finds chance Tampa clinic invented fake pets to get county funds 10/06/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 12:29pm]
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