The Cat That Got Away | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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The Cat That Got Away

In a post Friday, we described the "Houdini-esque predicament" of Charles Saltzman, a former treasurer of the Deerfield Beach cat shelter, Feline Friends. Three years after leaving that position, he'd seemingly been caught red-handed, raiding a Feline Friends-controlled bank account of more than $11,000.

The funds had been willed to Feline Friends by deceased cat rescue advocate Joan Cookfair, much to the frustration of another cash-strapped cat group, Feline Rescue of Lighthouse Point. Saltzman had become involved with Feline Rescue, run by Gina Stefanides and her mother, Margaret Stefanides.

Broward Sheriff's Office Det. Brian McDonald reviewed bank records detailing how in the fall of 2007, Saltzman had activated a Feline Friends fundraising corporation, called Helping Hands to Animals, and in doing so changed the corporate directors so that he had access to its SunTrust bank account. McDonald also found that five days later, on October 29, 2007, Saltzman opened a Wachovia checking account with the $11,290 he'd taken from the Helping Hands account. Then a few weeks later, on November 15 of that year, Saltzman transferred $10,000 to the Wachovia account of Feline Rescue. That $10,000 was moved yet again in December to another Feline Rescue account, until in January a check for that amount was written to Animal Aid, based in Boca Raton.

In a sworn statement in October 2008, Saltzman admitted to taking the money from the Feline Friends-controlled bank account without that organization's knowledge but claimed the legal right to do so based on the fact that Feline Friends had allowed the Helping Hands corporation to lapse. On that basis, he claimed the funds were "abandoned."

There is a Florida law that allows for the seizure of abandoned property, including money -- this may be the revelant one. In his investigative report, McDonald writes: "When asked by this investigator if he followed any of the statute requirements for seeking abandoned funds, Saltzman stated that he did not, nor did he know any existed."

Whether Saltzman's grabbing the $11,290 was covered by the abandonment statutes, well, that's a matter of legal interpretation.

In the view of Feline Friends volunteers Cindy Weber and Beth Caron, absolutely not.

"It's the same things as if somebody stole your debit card," says Weber. To her, the corporate registration was not the issue; it was that the bank account itself was active.

Det. McDonald seemed to take this view, too. On April 7 he concluded his investigation by declaring that Saltzman had committed fraud, a third-degree felony. With that, he dropped off his investigative report at the Broward State Attorney's Office.

A month later, after assistant state attorney Don TenBrook and fellow prosecutor  Al Guttman conducted their own analysis of the case, they pronounced a preference for the version told by Saltzman and his attorney. They would not be filing a case against Saltzman.

In a letter explaining their reasons, TenBrook explained that even though Helping Hands money had been willed to Feline Friends, it had not been transferred, nor had the two entities merged into one. That, plus the fact that Helping Hands was allowed to dissolve as a corporation, meant that Feline Friends "did not have a possessory interest in the money in the bank to support a theft charge." Here is the Florida statute for theft.

But remember that McDonald had recommended a fraud charge, and those statutes appear to be more accommodating for a prosecutor with a case like this one.

In addition, TenBrook's statement "that the money was used for the charitable purpose intended and not for personal gain" seems to miss the mark, as the money was willed expressly for the charitable purpose of Feline Friends, not Feline Rescue. In fact, the woman who donated the money that was eventually transferred to the Deerfield shelter is Ardath Rosengarden, who most definitely intended it for the exclusive use of Feline Friends.

"He took my money and gave it someone I don't approve of," says Rosengarden, speaking of Saltzman. "It wasn't his decision to make. Falsifying records -- that is criminal behavior."

Plus, it seems unlikely that in a trial the defense attorney would be allowed to tell the jury how the money was spent, as it could be prejudicial, given that the relevant legal question is whether Saltzman had the right to take the money.

Saltzman's lawyer, Grosso, says: "The thing that really stands out is (Saltzman) offered to pay Feline Friends, Inc. the $11,000, but Ms. Weber has refused the offer and wants him to go to prison."

Weber doesn't dispute this. "We don't want him to get away with this," she says. "We want him to have a record."

Margaret Stefanides of Feline Rescue says that as a former volunteer for Helping Hands, she was in a better position to judge how money that originated that group should be spent. She admits her group took the money from Helping Hands but denies it was truly in the possession of Feline Friends, no matter what the will said.

So much for camaraderie in the cat world. Weber is furious at Feline Rescue as well as Animal Aid, the Boca-based organization that, according to the investigation, was the final destination for $10,000 of the $11,290 that was willed to Feline Friends. "There are rescue groups who knew full well this was stolen money," says Weber.

Tamera Gibson, of Animal Aid, denies knowing the origin of the $10,000 she received from Feline Rescue. "They didn't tell me anything except, 'Here's a donation of $300 per cat,'" she says. "Then a year later there was some dispute over who had the right to the money."

Gibson says that the money was spent on food and furnishings for the strays, who now live in a sanctuary in Naples. She's not taking sides. "I think that any group that's helping cats is a friend of mine," she says.

But that feeling may not quite be mutual. As one of the region's most generous donors to cat rescue organizations, Rosengarden doesn't believe that Gibson can possibly take good care of as many cats as she accepts. She appreciates how Feline Friends takes no more than 70 cats -- the most that they can confidently care for.

Ultimately, the only opinion that matters is that of the prosecutors, who decided this case wasn't up to par. Rosengarden, for one, wonders whether the feline nature of the case biased the prosecutors. "Maybe they thought, 'Because animals are involved, how important was it?'" she says. "I bet if there were children were involved they have been much more active."

After the funds in that Helping Hands account turned up missing, Feline Friends alerted their donors and Rosengarden herself made another donation. Like most animal shelters, however, Feline Friends is struggling in this economy. For virtually the entire year they've been maxed out, using their funds to care for a packed house and unable to accept new cats until they place the existing ones in adopted homes. In the first six months of 2009, they've placed only a single cat.

For Weber and other Feline Friends volunteers, the ordeal has proved to be an expensive lesson in the nuances of corporate management, the whims of local prosecutors and the Machiavellian tactics of those who claim to have a similar mission. "The politics of animal rescue stink," she says. "I don't know why groups would go against each other."