A national anti-dog-racing group has officially requested that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation investigate whether the state has the authority to revoke the license of Ursula O'Donnell, the greyhound trainer arrested in 2002 on felony animal abuse charges related to a massive greyhound graveyard police discovered just over the Alabama state line.
When Robert Rhodes, the man who confessed to shooting thousands of dogs over a 20-year span, died before trial, the case against O'Donnell was dropped. Since then, O'Donnell has continued training dogs with a full license from the State of Florida. Grey2K USA, the antiracing lobby, would like that to change.
The DBPR's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering conducted a lengthy investigation of O'Donnell. At least two people, including Rhodes himself, told authorities that O'Donnell sent dogs to Pensacola to have them "euthanized" by the Alabama security guard. Investigators at the time uncovered a check for $230 written from O'Donnell to Rhodes.
O'Donnell told investigators that she gave her employee a blank check, and that she was sending the dogs that were no longer fast enough to race up north to be killed by a veternarian. She said she did not know that for $10 per animal, she was paying Rhodes to shoot the dogs in the head or snout and bury the bodies on his property.
Rhodes told authorities the $10 was to cover the cost of the bullets and the time he spent digging.
A letter from Grey2K to the DBPR states:
Due to recent developments, we ask that the Division open an investigate to determine whether it has the statutory authority to revoke Ms. O'Donnell's occupational license, pursuant to Florida Statutes, Chapter 550.105 (8). As you know, this section allows for revocation based on false statements made during an investigation. We also believe that it is not in the best interest of racing for Ms. O'Donnell to continue to hold an occupational license.
A spokesperson for the DBPR told me yesterday that O'Donnell's license can not be pulled for animal cruelty unless there is a criminal conviction, according to current Florida law.
"Ms. O'Donnell was never convicted of a crime," Alexis Lambert, press secretary for the DBPR, explained. "The division does have the power to revoke or suspend professional licenses, but there was never a determination that Ms. O'Donnell broke the law."
She says that determination is "a legal determination made by the division or by the court."
Remember, the prosecution in Alabama, where O'Donnell was charged, was using the DBPR investigation to make the felony case against her -- the same evidence the state now says is not enough to revoke her license.
Robert Rhodes, of course, had his Florida license revoked before he died, and he was never convicted.
"Robert Rhodes confessed to his crimes," Lambert explained. "That's why the division could pull his license. Ms. O'Donnell denied participation." Rhodes had his license revoked under a different statute, Lambert said, one regarding transporting greyhounds across state lines for the purposes of euthanizing and killing a greyhound by any means other than lethal injection. That code does not require conviction, Lambert said.
Unlike every other state with greyhound racing, Florida does not have a "best interest of racing" clause in the law, which allows the licensing board to remove individuals who may be damaging the industry.
Of the check from O'Donnell to Rhodes, the state's official policy is that it believes the trainer when she says she gave a blank check to her employee and had no knowledge the dogs would be shot. "It's clear that the check was not filled out by her," Lambert said, "and that's standard practice in the industry."
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To an outsider, it might look like the state had no problem excommunicating Rhodes, the old, broke security guard, while embracing Ursula O'Donnell, a well-connected trainer who happens to be part of the most powerful family in greyhound racing.
At least after getting into trouble, you'd think the trainer would keep her nose clean, right?
Wrong. Since her 2002 arrest, Ursula O'Donnell has had five additional complaints filed with the state, including two charges of "unlicensed activity," one charge of "falsification," and at least one of O'Donnell's dogs' testing positive for the drug dimethyl sulfoxide, which can be used to mask injuries.
We would love to hear Ursula's side of the story, since she's looking more and more like the Cruella De Vil of greyhound racing. But when I reached her by phone yesterday, she again declined to comment.