TAMPA — An ongoing debate in Hillsborough County over whether to ban commercial puppy sales took an unexpected turn this week when the owner of a local puppy store was arrested on charges of selling dogs without health permits.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services arrested Michael Robert Lamprea, 35, the owner of Tampa Puppies, after an inspection Wednesday allegedly found the store didn't have the required veterinary records that ensure customers are buying healthy dogs.
The state also arrested an employee, Maurice Barrett, 25, who obstructed authorities and instructed other employees not to cooperate in the investigation, according to the arrest report. Barrett was booked at a Hillsborough County jail and was released Thursday on a $750 bond.
Since April, commissioners have debated whether to ban the commercial sale of puppies and were expected to vote on an ordinance as early as Wednesday. But the proposal as written would exempt the three puppy stores already operating in Hillsborough, including Tampa Puppies.
By Friday, word of Lamprea's arrest had reached commissioners, who now must decide whether to still carve out an exception for existing stores.
"This only reinforces the need to ban the sale of retail animals," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who is behind the proposed ordinance. "Many of these companies ignore state laws and put profit over animal health and welfare."
Lamprea did not respond to a message left by the Tampa Bay Times. William Rowland, who is listed on state incorporation papers as the registered agent and described himself as a "silent partner," disputed the charges.
Rowland said the dogs that did not have health records on file recently arrived and were awaiting veterinary inspection, scheduled for Thursday. He said signs on the cages indicated the puppies were not for sale.
However, under state regulations, dogs and cats that enter Florida from out-of-state breeders must have an Official Certificate of Veterinary Inspection on file with the state. The state maintains those records for one year.
In response to a records request by the Times in April, the Florida Department of Agriculture said it did not have any certificates on file for Puppies Tampa. A department spokeswoman said the dogs at the center of Wednesday's investigation appeared to be from Georgia and Rowland acknowledged their breeders are from around the country.
Meanwhile, All About Puppies, which owns the other two puppy stores in unincorporated Hillsborough, had 68 certificates of veterinarian inspection from the past 12 months on file with the state.
"Maybe that's something we should call and find out why there are differences there," Rowland said.
Lamprea and Barrett face administrative and potential criminal charges from the first-degree misdemeanor arrests. Tampa Puppies, in a N Dale Mabry Highway strip mall since 2010, was open Friday afternoon, though an employee locked the door when a Times photographer attempted to enter.
Hillsborough's proposed ban on commercial sales of dogs and cats is intended to crack down on inhumane breeders, often called puppy mills, where dogs spend most of their life in confinement to mass produce puppies for sale.
If approved, people would have to adopt dogs and cats from shelters, though the ordinance would not prohibit Internet sales nor will it shut down mom-and-pop breeders.
Commissioners have been at odds over whether to grandfather existing puppy stores amid concerns about shutting down local small businesses.
Commissioner Victor Crist said he will offer an alternative proposal that will grandfather in businesses already operating but with strict guidelines.
For example, stores will have to buy from U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified breeders, they will have to visit their breeders once a year and provide breeder inspection information to customers.
They also won't be able to buy from breeders with USDA violations in the past 24 months, Crist said.
That appears to be a standard that some breeders for All About Puppies do not often meet, according to USDA inspections obtained by the Times.
One of those suppliers, Puppies Extraordinaire, a Kansas breeder that maintains about 1,000 dogs on site, was cited in 2015 and 2016 for keeping dogs in buildings and enclosures that were not up to code and could potentially cause injury.
At another Kansas breeder, Twin Oaks Kennel, inspectors in 2014 found staffers treating dogs with expired oxytocin. Whispering Oaks Kennel, also in Kansas, had a Shih Tzu in 2014 with an untreated eye infection swollen and crusted from a "slightly intruding point coming out of the pupil." There, dogs were drinking water that was green out of containers with "green slime," inspectors said.
A phone call to All About Puppies was not returned. Crist said he met with them Friday, and they agreed to his proposal.
"I'm not trying to protect these businesses," Crist said. "I'm merely trying to make sure they do the right thing or they're gone, so people have the option of buying puppies sight seen and not go to the Internet."
The investigation into Tampa Puppies came after the Department of Agriculture received multiple complaints about the company's practices.
Rowland, the business' registered agent, found the timing of the arrest suspect.
"It's just a coincidence that this happened right before a commissioner vote," he said. "And by that, I mean it's not a coincidence at all."
Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.