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Tampa-based pet flight charity now focus of criminal investigation, state says

TAMPA — The rescue pilot behind the Soaring Paws charity went on Facebook to reassure donors last month after a state agent knocked on his door with a subpoena demanding records.

"It's simply a questionnaire," Albert Lonzo Adams III wrote.

The subpoena sought animal flight logs, payroll ledgers and two years of detailed financial reports. It asked for names and contacts for board members and backers, including an alleged benefactor Adams calls the "Amazon Rescue Foundation."

His answers were thin. More subpoenas followed, and last week — for the first time — the state said Soaring Paws is the focus of an "active criminal investigation."

Adams, 45, has not been charged. He had fraud convictions over a decade ago, but he says he has done nothing illegal with his nonprofit. He flies shelter dogs to rescuers ready to place them, while relying on donors to rent him a plane.

He's still allowed to solicit.

"We will take any necessary action if and when it becomes appropriate," said Jenn Meale, communications director for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees charities.

The agency, which has a law enforcement unit, doesn't discuss open cases. But newly released records show information gathered through April 13, before the criminal inquiry began.

Senior financial investigator Sasha Velez subpoenaed PayPal records as part of an initial audit of Soaring Paws. The audit was triggered by reporting from the Tampa Bay Times, which had been contacted by Adams' critics.

The Times found evidence that Soaring Paws makes undocumented claims to raise money on Facebook, including promises of sponsors matching funds.

There were inconsistencies in Adams' revenue reporting. Such inconsistencies have resurfaced as the state examines his books.

He reported under penalty of perjury in February that Soaring Paws took in less than $25,000 last fiscal year.

"We fly as requests come in," he said last month. "We fly when we have the funds to do so."

However, PayPal and GoFundMe records show Soaring Paws has collected at least $143,000 in the past two years through donations and Booster.com clothing sales.

Flight records Adams submitted to the state accounted for just $21,000 in expenses, excluding duplicate claims.

Those records were not complete. He documented 44 days of rescues from 2014 to 2015, but only gave cost information for 30 of those days. In all, he delivered 166 dogs and puppies to new locales, according to the papers. Some came from shelters fighting high kill rates.

The listed flights ranged from $300 hops to Fort Myers to multicity treks topping $1,200.

The state later obtained more records from Atlas Aviation, the company at Peter O. Knight Airport that rents planes to Adams.

Those haven't been made public, and company president Deric Dymerski did not respond to a reporter's request for them.

• • •

It would come as no surprise to Adams' supporters if his collections were higher than his flight expenses. Since fall, he has been raising money to buy a used airplane for $130,000.

How much is in the bank? Neither he, nor the state, will say.

"All the funds we have raised so far for the plane are untouched," he said Saturday. "The fundraiser is still ongoing."

He has hundreds of private donors — the majority of them women — who give $1, $5, $20, $50 or even $1,000 at a time. One has shelled out at least $5,400. Those amounts are included in the $143,000 estimate.

Adams said no Soaring Paws funds have ever paid his personal expenses. He bought personal things out of his PayPal account, but they were offset by personal deposits from family and others. Those deposits, totaling more than $10,000, were not included in the $143,000 estimate.

Tax-exempt charities are allowed to pay staffers. But, from the beginning, Adams has asserted that he and his wife, who sometimes cares for pets onboard, work for free.

"All revenue is put 100 percent back into the operating expenses, equipment and care of the animals transported," he reported to the IRS in 2014.

• • •

The state asked Adams to explain some of the claims made on the Soaring Paws website.

It alludes to a network of nearly 300 pilots.

But where are they? They don't show up in photos online.

Velez asked for names. Adams didn't provide them. He said Soaring Paws doesn't cover their flight expenses. They pay their own way. That makes them sound a lot like members of the national network Pilots N Paws, an entirely different program.

His website tells of a 13-member board of directors.

Velez wanted those names too.

Adams named himself, his wife and another Albert Adams, relationship unknown.

His board and corporate officers are an ever-evolving crew.

He amended state Division of Corporations records three times in March. He used post office box numbers that don't exist when temporarily installing "James P. Morgan" of Orlando as his treasurer and "Peter Mitchell" of New York as his flight director, according to postal authorities.

At least 19 times on Facebook, he has claimed to have corporate sponsors. But he told Velez he has "no corporate sponsors, just private donors."

Finally, month after month, Adams has enticed donors with promises their contributions will be matched by the "Amazon Rescue Foundation," an entity that doesn't appear in public records.

Adams told Velez it is based out of Chile. He said he communicates by email. He said the email address is "theamazonres cuefoundation@yahoo.com."

It's unclear how old the address is, or who created it.

The state asked for copies of those emails, too.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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