After 40 years of saving birds, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary needs rescuing of its own.
The Internal Revenue Service has filed liens against the charity for unpaid payroll taxes amounting to more than $187,000. The Department of Labor is investigating possible violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and current and former workers say they've been forced to go without pay because the sanctuary is mismanaged and broke.
"I still haven't gotten a paycheck in – this will be seven weeks," volunteer rescue manager Greg Slutzky said.
"The day I left, I was five weeks behind in being paid," said Jennifer Godwin, who spent four years working in the sanctuary's avian hospital before quitting last month.
"I had my student loans coming in, possibly going into defaults because of it," Godwin said. "I had no rent money, I could barely feed myself."
The sanctuary, founded in 1971 by zoologist Ralph Heath, claims to be the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital in the United States, handling 23 to 30 wild birds per day.
It's hard to say what's going on with finances because the last report filed with the IRS is for 2010, when the charity reported $1.44 million in revenue and salary expenses that added up to about half that amount. There is no accounting yet for last year's finances.
"I wouldn't donate a dollar to the seabird sanctuary," said Robin Vergera, who said he was volunteer coordinator when he was fired several months ago, "because I know it could never be explained to me where that dollar's going."
Neither Heath nor his operations manager Micki Eslick would comment for this story, but sanctuary board member Gerry Alan had a lot to say after attending a hastily called meeting at the sanctuary Monday morning.
"I learned a couple of things I was pleased with," Alan said.
Alan said he was told by Heath and Eslick that the Department of Labor investigation concluded without any adverse consequences and that it had nothing to do with back pay. He chalked up the investigation to false claims made by former employees.
"I'm pretty certain it's over with," said Alan. "I think what they found – what they were investigating – is a bunch of BS and part of that rumor mill."
Vergera said Eslick, cousin of founder Ralph Heath, is an office worker who fired him several months ago. Heath's 102-year-old mother, Helen, also serves on the board but has little to do with day-to-day operations.
Vergera said his dismissal came after he persisted in asking Eslick about a $100,000 check to the sanctuary from the ambassador of Qatar, earmarked to fortify an evacuation shelter. Vergera said he later learned the shelter did not exist.
He showed a reporter a June 14 email from Eslick saying, "At this time we don't have a warehouse to house the birds and that is something Ralph is working on."
Michelle Simoneau said she left the sanctuary as marketing and public relations manager because of conflicts over financial accountability.
"I would say we need to use this money for what it was intended for or we're going to get in trouble," said Simoneau. "Finally, I had to leave."
She said her daughter Melissa quit recently over unpaid wages and learned from her doctor her insurance had been cancelled.
Simoneau said she arranged for a $300,000 cash gift in September 2010 from a retired scientist in Sun City Center. The gift came with a contract requiring the money be used for new equipment, electrical repairs and major improvements.
"At least we got her name on the building, but those funds were used for other things," Simoneau said.
Alan said he understood the gift was never earmarked for a specific purpose and was largely used to buy food and pay wages.
One thing no one disputes is the $187,000 the IRS claims the sanctuary owes in payroll taxes from January of 2011 through the first quarter of 2012.
Alan said the sanctuary has just paid the IRS for the fiscal quarter ended in September and is working on a plan to cover the previous unpaid balance.
He said the sanctuary raised money for the most recent tax bill by selling items such as its truck and has a plan to pay off the rest.
Part of that plan involves selling a 65-foot pleasure yacht named Whisker that the charity has spent more than a million dollars on over the years to purchase, refit and operate.
Whisker hasn't been operational for a decade.
"It wasn't worth nearly what we thought," Alan said.
Heath has also launched an urgent online appeal to raise $100,000 for bird food because he says the cost of bait fish has skyrocketed.
"Sadly, due to the Gulf Oil Spill and this year's storms in the Gulf of Mexico," the appeal reads, "commercial fishermen are not catching nearly as many fish as they caught in the past."
Two fish vendors and another bird sanctuary based in Sarasota said they haven't noticed any lasting spike in prices from a shortage in bait fish. Marine biologists at the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg say there is no evidence of any recent fish kill due to the BP oil spill.
"In fact," said research scientist Brent Winner, "2012 is one of the biggest years we've had for some of these species in coastal waters."
Greg Slutzky has been at the sanctuary as an employee and a volunteer for seven years and continues there despite weeks without pay.
Slutzky said he's dedicated to the birds but has lost faith in the management practices of Heath and Eslick.
"I can't endorse the sanctuary any more," he said.