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State ratchets up probe of Tampa's Soaring Paws charity, says pilot not cooperating

Pilot Albert Lonzo Adams III and his Soaring Paws animal rescue charity is now being investigated by law enforcement, a spokesman for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Thursday.
Pilot Albert Lonzo Adams III and his Soaring Paws animal rescue charity is now being investigated by law enforcement, a spokesman for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Thursday.
Published Mar. 25, 2016

TAMPA — Florida's inquiry into the finances of animal rescue pilot Albert Lonzo Adams III and his Soaring Paws charity is no longer a mere regulatory matter.

The case is now in the hands of law enforcement, a spokesman for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Thursday.

"We have not heard back from Soaring Paws and have received no information or response — or any semblance of cooperation," press secretary Aaron Keller said. "Because of that we have referred this case to our law enforcement investigators."

Adams, 45, uses Facebook, GoFundMe, Booster.com and other social media and crowd-funding platforms to solicit donations so he can fly dogs and cats from shelters to rescue groups in cities where they're wanted.

Even critics acknowledge the Tampa pilot has helped animals. But he answers to no one, and that troubles some people, considering that Adams is a state and federal felon with a history of fraud convictions who wants donors to buy him an airplane.

He tells Soaring Paws followers the plane will be theirs. But will it? People who challenge Adams online find their questions swiftly deleted and their access blocked, leaving only loyal fans and cheery emoticons.

The disappointed have backed away, some turning to a Facebook protest page, Soaring Paws Exposed, to vent.

A GoFundMe page set up by Soaring Paws to help pay for the airplane went dark this week after at least one donor asked the crowd-funding site for a refund.

"The campaign in question is under review by our team," media director Kelsea Little said Friday. Donors with concerns may write to www.gofundme.com/contact, she said.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which Putnam oversees, began looking into Soaring Paws after the Tampa Bay Times raised questions about inconsistencies in its financial reporting.

The charity has federal tax-exempt status, but flies under the radar of the Internal Revenue Service by declaring receipts of less than $50,000 a year. That threshold, once surpassed, requires detailed reporting.

Adams has been asking supporters since early fall to buy him a $130,000 airplane so he won't have to keep renting one. He recently said he was just $30,000 short of that goal.

He told the state under penalty of perjury in a February registration document, though, that Soaring Paws took in less than $25,000 last fiscal year and expects $13,000 this year.

Contradicting even that, the charity listed 2015 contributions of $49,400 in a report to Guide­Star, which gathers information from other nonprofits. The report also showed an additional $28,000 in "other revenue" that was not explained.

Adams claims he isn't paid a penny.

He didn't respond to a request for a log of rescue flights and a statement of the charity's receipts through PayPal. Soaring Paws solicits through GoFundMe, Generosity.com and its own website.

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The charity gets a trickle of support from AmazonSmile. Donors have also bought Soaring Paws' wish list items at Amazon.com, including collars, harnesses and leashes. Bag by bag, they bought 55 pounds of Gummi bears sought by the pilot, who posts that he'd like another $429 GoPro camera.

Supporters have also shelled out thousands since 2014 for Soaring Paws T-shirts and jerseys.

A spokesman for Booster.com, which handles the shirt sales, said proceeds go to Adams' personal PayPal account, not to a Soaring Paws account.

This story has been updated to include a comment from GoFundMe. Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.