A Spokane animal shelter faces possible civil charges for illegally obtaining prescription drugs, according to federal investigators.
The Drug Enforcement Administration investigation has been forwarded to the U.S. attorney’s office in Spokane for prosecution.
SpokAnimal is believed to have ordered drugs using the federal drug licenses of veterinarians who no longer work for the nonprofit animal shelter, DEA spokesman Thomas O’Brien and other sources said.
SpokAnimal Executive Director Gail Mackie blamed the problem on an employee, whom she declined to identify. She said she disciplined, but did not fire, the employee.
“Some minor record-keeping and procedural problems were discovered and corrected,” Mackie said, adding that the employee “was simply seeking to buy a prescription at a discount.”
Records show someone at the Freya Street shelter ordered $237 worth of prescription diet pills and a female hormone substitute called premarin that, ironically, is associated with animal abuse.
Animal-welfare advocates say premarin is produced by keeping pregnant mares confined in narrow stalls with urine-collecting equipment that prevents them from even kneeling comfortably.
The drugs were ordered last March and July from Burns Veterinary Supply in Vancouver, Wash., under the DEA license of veterinarian Nancy Haugan. Haugan hadn’t worked at SpokAnimal since fall 1994.
Haugan, who moved to Eureka, Mont., said she suspended her practice to start a family and wasn’t aware that SpokAnimal was still using her license.
Although Haugan is responsible for preventing misuse of the license, she said she doesn’t expect to be prosecuted. A DEA investigator “just scolded me pretty bad,” she said.
Mackie said the employee had a prescription for the improperly ordered drugs and reimbursed SpokAnimal, but the director was unable to say when the payment was received.
SpokAnimal’s two staff veterinarians, Colette Bergam and Kate Christman, and their former veterinary technician, Heather Brown, said SpokAnimal’s office manager was in charge when the prescriptions for diet pills and hormone supplements were filled.
The office manager could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The federal investigation apparently went beyond the prescriptions to examine routine orders of veterinary drugs.
Veterinarian Sherron McKelvey said investigators asked her to sign a statement that she hadn’t authorized SpokAnimal to purchase veterinary anesthetics with her license after she resigned in 1994. McKelvey worked for SpokAnimal’s clinic at the same time as Haugan.
The veterinarian who succeeded them, Robert Pierce, said he refused to provide a federal license for the clinic after Mackie declined to pay the license fee. Mackie’s refusal to let him control the clinic also was an issue, he said.
“I didn’t trust them with my DEA license,” Pierce said. “If it wasn’t me running the clinic, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be them using my license.”
Mackie told him SpokAnimal had its own license, Pierce said. He said he didn’t realize at the time that SpokAnimal’s license was good only for euthanasia drugs, not anesthetics and other drugs that were supplied to him.
Pierce said he considered himself a short-timer - he resigned in July 1995, and “wasn’t paying as close of attention as I should have.”
Mackie said she doesn’t recall having a dispute with Pierce over the license.
She said the first time she realized there was a problem was at a staff meeting in late May or early June 1995. Mackie said SpokAnimal’s chief veterinarian, Colette Bergam, offered to provide a valid license on condition that Bergam be given “strict control” over drug ordering.
Mackie said she accepted Bergam’s terms and agreed to pay for the license, but Bergam failed to follow through.
Bergam said she refused to allow use of her license until September because she wanted written assurance that SpokAnimal wouldn’t continue to use her license if she resigned. She said she got only verbal assurance, but finally relented.
Former SpokAnimal veterinary technician Heather Brown, who resigned Jan. 15, said she discovered one of the illegal prescription orders last June after Bergam won control of drug ordering and placed her in charge of the inventory.
The second illegal order occurred the following month, Brown said.
Brown, Bergam and SpokAnimal’s other veterinarian, Kate Christman, said they had nothing to do with any of the prescription-drug orders.
Brown said the problem surfaced when she tried switching to a drug supplier that SpokAnimal hadn’t used for a few years. The company told her it had shipped drugs under McKelvey’s license, but the license had expired.
According to Brown, Mackie instructed her to return to the supplier SpokAnimal was currently using. But Brown said that company, Burns Veterinary Supply, had been using Haugan’s license - even though she no longer worked for SpokAnimal.
The DEA is recommending civil prosecution for obtaining controlled substances by fraud, which carries a maximum $25,000 penalty.
The state Board of Pharmacy, meanwhile, is trying to determine whether SpokAnimal violated its pharmacy license. The license allows the shelter to buy only pentobarbital, a drug used for euthanasia.
Don Williams, executive director of the Board of Pharmacy, said SpokAnimal is required to go through a veterinarian to obtain any other drugs. He said the shelter needs a pharmacy license to receive any drugs, even if a veterinarian orders them.
If the Board of Pharmacy finds SpokAnimal violated state regulations, it could suspend or revoke the shelter’s license. Loss of that license might cost SpokAnimal, which reported income of $663,474 in 1995, one or both of the contracts it has with the city of Spokane.
The city pays SpokAnimal $65,000 a year, plus 15 percent of animal-license fees, to issue licenses and round up strays. The organization also collected more than $20,000 last year from the city’s subsidized spay and neuter program.
SpokAnimal needs drugs for both city contracts. Although it bills itself as a “no-kill” shelter, SpokAnimal routinely euthanizes strays that are considered unadoptable.