Tempers flare over animal shelter issues during meeting

Published 11:46 pm Monday, March 19, 2018

At several points during Monday’s meeting of the Carter County Commission, the topic turned to the recent testimony by Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey during a civil case in Virginia where a woman claims her dogs were illegally seized by the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter and later sold to someone else.

At times during the evening, the discussion became heated and Commission Chairman Commissioner Dr. Robert Acuff had to call down those speaking to keep them from trying to talk over one another.

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The subject of Humphrey’s testimony was first broached during the public comments portion of the meeting when two local residents — Joni Cannon and Robin McKamey — questioned his participation in the case and also called into question statements made about the case by Humphrey and the dogs’ previous owner in recent news stories.

“The Mayor made some pretty inflammatory statements about our shelter and its staff,” Cannon said. “The Mayor needs to tell us why he continues to make these unfounded accusations.”

According to Cannon, Humphrey claims that under a previous director animal trafficking took place at the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter despite the fact that the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office and First Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark both stated they found no evidence of animal trafficking during their recent investigation into shelter operations.

The lawsuit brought by Kimberly Buckles in Wise County, Virginia, the woman claims that officials with the animal shelter illegally seized her two Shih-Tzu dogs and then the dogs were sold to new owners. Buckles alleges that the dogs were well-groomed and were being cared for by her father when someone went into his fenced yard and took them.

The animal shelter’s previous director contends that the animals were in poor condition with matted fur and open sores and were running loose on a county road when an animal control officer picked them up.

During her time to speak in public comments, Cannon, with the assistance of McKamey held up photographs which they saw show the poor condition the two dogs were in when they arrived at the animal shelter. Cannon said the animals were brought to the shelter, groomed and given medical attention. The dogs were then held for the state-mandated 10-day waiting period, Cannon said, before being sent to a rescue operation in Wise County, Va., where they were eventually adopted out to their new owner.

“How did the Mayor get brought into this,” Cannon asked. “Why was he asked to testify in his official capacity as Mayor?”

McKamey said during Humphrey’s testimony during the civil case in Virginia last month that he told the court the woman’s dogs had been seized illegally by the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter.

“Leon Humphrey has put this county in a position where we could be under a lawsuit,” McKamey said. She then asked the Commission to give the Mayor a vote of “no confidence.”

Following the public comments by Cannon and McKamey, Acuff allowed Humphrey time to respond to their comments.

“I don’t need a vote of confidence for or against this Mayor,” Humphrey said. “The people who will make that vote are the citizens of this county.”

Humphrey said many of those who have spoken out against his involvement in the court case do not have the correct information.

“I’m not going to do anything that would put this county at risk,” Humphrey said. “I never have.”

He said he would also not turn away someone who comes to his office asking for help, particularly when they feel they have been “wronged” by the government.

“We will represent any citizen who comes through my office,” Humphrey said. “Those people who have been wronged by the government, I will be there to help them.”

The subject came up for discussion again when Animal Shelter Board member Commissioner Buford Peters stood to give the Commission an update on shelter operations.

Peters noted the county had received an open records request from the law firm of Wolfe, Williams & Reynolds, which is based out of Norton, Va., requesting to inspect or receive copies of records related to Humphrey’s testimony in the civil case in Wise County, Va. Peters read the letter, dated February 26, for his fellow commissioners.

“Mayor Leon Humphrey testified in Wise County Virginia General District Court on February 22, 2018, regarding the seizure and adoption of these two canines. Mayor Humphrey voluntarily appeared as a witness in this matter and testified in the capacity of an elected official from a foreign jurisdiction,” the letter states. “Mayor Humphrey was not a party to the legal proceeding nor was he issued a subpoena to testify.”

“During his testimony, Mayor Humphrey stated there was written documentation including 911 audio and video footage related to the seizure and adoption of these two canines,” the letter continues. “Mayor Humphrey testified under oath that the two canines did not show any signs of neglect and that the animal control seizure conducted by the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter was ‘illegal.’”

According to the letter, Humphrey informed the court there was an active investigation regarding past animal seizures and adoptions.

“Pursuant to Mayor Humphrey’s testimony and (Tennessee state law), please include all documentation related to his testimony regarding the animal seizure and illegal activity surrounding the adoption of these two canines,” the letter states.

The letter goes on to request “any and all” documentation authored by Susan Robinson, Humphrey’s administrative assistant, regarding the seizure of the animals, noting that Robinson worked at the animal shelter.

Peters said when Carter County Finance Director Christa Byrd, whose office is the public records point of contact for the county, received the letter, the records requested by the attorneys were not in the possession of the animal shelter, but were part of the missing shelter records which shelter officials believed were in Humphrey’s possession. Peters noted that during the Commission’s meeting in February, commissioners asked Humphrey if he was in possession of any records belonging to the animal shelter.

“The Mayor was asked point blank if he had any animal shelter records and he said no,” Peters said. “Mysteriously last week, (Carter County Attorney) Mr. Josh Hardin received two or three boxes of records in his office from the Mayor’s office.”

Peters asked that if an investigation was, in fact, ongoing, as Humphrey testified, that Humphrey turn over any records or documentation he has to the Carter County Sheriff’s Office or District Attorney’s Office. He also requested that Humphrey turn over a computer hard drive that he removed from the animal shelter office.

According to Peters, the recent publicity from television news stories regarding the Mayor’s involvement in the case have had a negative impact on donations to the shelter.

Following the update from Peters, Commissioner Al Meehan asked Hardin if Humphrey consulted him or sought advice prior to testifying in a civil proceeding in another state.

“I did not advise anything,” Hardin said. “There was some discussion about litigation that may have been brought here, but it wasn’t.”

Hardin said he had no knowledge that Humphrey was going to testify in the case before it happened or even on the day of the court proceeding.

“If the Mayor indicated in that court that the county did something illegal, could that open us up to litigation,” Meehan asked.

Hardin responded, “There’s always that chance.”

The matter was brought up for discussion a third time when Hardin gave his monthly report to the Commission. Meehan asked Hardin some additional questions regarding the impact Humphrey’s testimony could have on the county. Humphrey and Meehan ended up exchanging words.

“You are the highest elected official in this county and testifying that this county is doing something illegally without an attorney is highly concerning,” Meehan said, once again adding it could lead to the county facing a lawsuit.

“Whether you agree or not is out of your scope, sir,” Humphrey responded. “It’s out of this Commission’s scope of authority. It’s out of the scope of these good citizens.”

“Why would you worry about a situation before it happens,” Humphrey asked.

Another member of the Commission had a question regarding the documentation requested by the attorneys in Virginia.

Commissioner Brad Johnson asked Peters if the shelter had the documentation requested by the attorneys and Peters said he did not. Johnson then posed his question to Humphrey.

“The attorney has all the documents that were requested,” Humphrey replied.

“Then, sir, you flat lied to me in this Commission last month,” Johnson responded. Johnson stated that last month he asked Humphrey if he had any records belonging to the animal shelter and Humphrey had replied that he did not.