After nearly a year of simmering, a controversy surrounding the Hamilton Animal Shelter finally boiled over last month, amplifying an already tense political atmosphere in the township and sending Mayor Kelly Yaede on a defensive campaign weeks before the first primary election of her career.

Behind all the political intrigue and finger pointing, though, is a real issue.

No one—not even Yaede—denies that animals died and laws were broken at the Hamilton Animal Shelter and, because of this, people could go to jail.

Jeff Plunkett speaks during an October 2014 press conference. On May 3, 2019, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office charged Bencivengo and Plunkett with two counts of animal cruelty and one count of official misconduct after an investigation into the municipal animal shelter.

On May 3, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office announced township officials Jeff Plunkett and Todd Bencivengo each had been charged with two counts of third-degree animal cruelty and one count of second-degree official misconduct. The MCPO said its investigation revealed that in a 34-month period between Jan. 1, 2016 and Oct. 1, 2018, staff at the Hamilton animal shelter had euthanized nearly 330 animals before holding them at least seven days, the minimum number required by state law.

Both men have long ties to Hamilton’s municipal government. Bencivengo retired in March after serving for years as the supervisor of the Hamilton Township Animal Shelter. Plunkett works as the Hamilton Township health officer and the director of the township Department of Health, Recreation, Senior and Veterans Services. Plunkett has served as township health officer since 1995 and as the head of the recreation department since 2016. The animal shelter falls under the township health department.

Then, on May 7, an investigative subcommittee led by Republican councilwoman Ileana Schirmer and Democratic councilman Rick Tighe released a 43-page report on the shelter that depicted a facility run haphazardly, without rules or oversight. This lackadaisical approach, the report suggests, allowed animals to be euthanized in an inhumane and occasionally illegal manner. The shelter had expired medication, no scale to weigh large dogs, little in the way of recordkeeping or employee training and rooms where the heating, air conditioning and ventilation didn’t work properly. The report also alleges a $1.1-million expansion to the shelter in 2015 failed to provide amenities promised by the administration, such as dedicated adoption rooms and larger medical spaces.

The report did not directly blame Yaede, but it did point a finger at several administration officials, including Plunkett and economic development director Marty Flynn, who formerly served as health and recreation director. Township council took steps in late May to begin the process of removing Plunkett from his job.

The trouble is in separating truth from politics in an issue where everyone involved has something to gain and something to lose.

Aside from a typo-filled, early-morning post on her Facebook account May 8, Yaede did not publicly address the investigation report initially. Then, on May 10, she released a video statement filmed at the animal shelter on the township’s YouTube page. In the video, Yaede struck a defiant tone, questioning the sudden appearance of controversy around the shelter after decades of existence “without any significant issues.” She said her administration will act appropriately if it is proven the people implicated in the shelter controversy acted with “malicious intent.”

Schirmer, in an interview, said the mayor should ultimately be the one bearing responsibility for what happens under her administration.

“She’s just as guilty,” said Schirmer, who has endorsed David Henderson, Yaede’s opponent in the June 4 Republican primary. “She knew what was going on. For such an animal advocate, she was just as guilty as everybody else.”

The trouble is in separating what’s truth and what’s politics in an issue where everyone involved has something to gain and something to lose.

What’s known for sure is that on July 16, 2018, the state Department of Health conducted an inspection of the Hamilton Animal Shelter. The state found nearly 30 deficiencies, including missing and recklessly stored prescription drugs, dirty cages and bowls and a lack of records and procedures. It noted that a cat that had been reported as euthanized had also been recorded as being reclaimed—alive—by its owners after the alleged euthanization date.

At left, former township animal control officer Todd Bencivengo hands a dog from the Hamilton animal shelter to Mayor Kelly Yaede during Yaede’s 2014 State of Hamilton address.

The state report spurred the Hamilton Township council to start an investigation of its own. Council created a subcommittee consisting of Schirmer and Tighe, and tasked it with finding out what was happening at the shelter and why.

In August 2018, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Humane Law Enforcement Unit began an investigation into the shelter after two complaints were referred to it by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. The division is part of the state Attorney General’s Office.

Then, in October 2018, the state Department of Health re-inspected the shelter. DOH found 10 areas of concern—including how records were kept at the facility, as well as how it administered euthanasia. Following the inspection, the state issued the shelter a satisfactory rating on Nov. 14, 2018, only to rescind it five days later. DOH, in a statement to the Hamilton Post, said the “satisfactory rating was issued in error and was rescinded.”

DOH inspected the shelter for a third time on Jan. 15, 2019, this time granting a satisfactory rating that stuck.

Then, months passed until the flurry of activity in May.

* * *

Nearly 45 minutes into an interview, Kelly Yaede decided to throw caution to the wind.

She was in the midst of laying out the conspiracy she says has been engineered to oust her as mayor. As she arrived at the heart of her theory, Yaede shed her typically measured cadence. Her voice became more forceful, angry even.

Yaede insists she hasn’t done anything wrong, and said the timing of the criminal charges and investigative report is calculated.

“It’s been widely known in Republican and Democratic circles that Murphy and Martin are tied at the hip,” she said. “And that the attorney general’s office was involved in the charges against two gentlemen. However, no charges, no investigation, no follow-up inspections for the City of Trenton.”

She continued: “The only difference is that Hamilton Township is run by the Republicans. There is a significant difference in the allocation of justice here.”

Yaede has reason to feel besieged, just weeks before the first primary challenge of her political career. She insists she hasn’t done anything wrong, and said the timing of the criminal charges and the investigative report is no coincidence.

Hamilton Township Council president and Democratic mayoral candidate Jeff Martin.

Yaede believes, instead, that Gov. Phil Murphy has been pulling the strings on a plan that spans multiple state departments, several Mercer County municipalities and the Hamilton Township Democratic Committee—all to open the door for Hamilton Township council president Jeff Martin, a candidate Yaede says the governor has handpicked to serve as mayor.

Yaede has turned to this theory as both a defense from the allegations and an explanation for why they surfaced when they did.

The conspiracy—and Yaede’s response to it—extended across the county and the state. She believes the state interfered so that a May 2017 complaint investigation at the Trenton Animal Shelter resulted in no criminal charges despite revealing similar violations to Hamilton’s. (The city was under state supervision at the time, Yaede said. However, Murphy could not have been involved since the governor in May 2017 was Republican Chris Christie.) She believes the charges against Bencivengo and Plunkett are the result of the state attorney general putting pressure on the county prosecutor.

She has asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate, writing a letter complete with nine bullet points Yaede believes make her case.

A USAO spokesman confirmed they have received Yaede’s request, but could not “confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.”

Both Martin and Murphy have denied Yaede’s claims.

“There is not one bit of truth to what is contained in the letter,” Martin said in a statement. “This is a desperate and delusional action to avoid accountability for her mismanagement of Hamilton’s animal shelter.”

Murphy spokesman Matthew Saidel said Yaede’s accusations are “completely false.”

“The Governor had no role in the nomination process,” Saidel said.

Yaede also believes the conspiracy extends to other Democrats closer to home. She said she has learned about a secret agreement between the Hamilton Democrats and EASEL Animal Rescue League, which operates Ewing’s municipal animal shelter. Wendy Sturgeon, a Hamilton Democratic Committee member, recently left her job as EASEL executive director.

“We have been informed that there was an agreement with a Democratically run rescue that if they supported a councilman in an election, the shelter would be theirs,” Yaede said. “I cannot say any more about that, but it’s why we asked the U.S. Attorney to review the matter.”

Sources said that Yaede is serious about the alleged deal between the Democrats and EASEL, with the Hamilton Township administration going as far as to file two public records requests with the Ewing Township municipal government for information pertaining to EASEL and its affiliation with the Ewing animal shelter.

All the attention unnerved Karen Azarchi, the president of EASEL’s board of directors, who said her organization has no interest in taking on a different municipal shelter. EASEL’s long-term goal is to get out of the municipal game altogether, she said, and build its own shelter.

“We have no eyes on the shelter,” Azarchi said. “We do not want the shelter in Hamilton. We are just fine with our shelter here. We have zero, zero, zero, zero, zero interest. I can’t make it clearer. We just want people to stop using our name in connection with what’s going on in Hamilton.”

Yaede expected the denials, but doesn’t accept them.

The controversy hits Yaede close to her heart. She has long been a booster of the Hamilton Animal Shelter, using her political positions to promote drives for blankets and donations. She once delivered a State of Hamilton address while holding a shelter dog. She frequently sent out press releases for her Day with the Mayor campaign, where she would pull a dog out of the shelter and bring it to work with her for the day. Many of those dogs wound up being adopted.

Perhaps because Yaede’s pet cause now has become the biggest threat to her political career, her anger is palpable.

The animal shelter controversy clearly has wounded Yaede, but she says she hasn’t taken the attacks personally.

“I’m in politics,” Yaede said. “I’m fair game. The quote I say during every campaign is, ‘I have thick skin. You can take a shot at me. But don’t touch my dog.’”

She laughed at this. But her laughter ended with the kind of sudden stop that hinted maybe the threat she made wasn’t so much of a joke.

* * *

The many investigations into the Hamilton animal shelter in the past year have found plenty of issues at the facility, none stoking emotions as much as the shelter’s euthanasia policies.

The state inspection found that several shelter employees were not trained in proper euthanasia techniques and that the shelter did not have a scale capable of accommodating large dogs. Shelter employees interviewed by the council subcommittee contradicted one another as to whether they took measures to weigh large dogs before euthanizing them, or merely guessed the correct dosage of euthanasia solution. An animal’s weight determines the proper dosage for the euthanasia solution used at the shelter.

The prosecutor found that 236 cats and 93 dogs were euthanized in a
34-month period.

The township also came under fire for its policy of accepting animals and euthanizing them at the request of the animals’ owner. Plunkett testified to the council subcommittee that when an owner would bring in a pet to be euthanized, the shelter employees did not question the person.

The council subcommittee report also said shelter staff did not review paperwork to determine the surrendered animals’ health, leading the subcommittee to suggest it is possible that healthy animals may have been euthanized after being surrendered by owners who merely no longer wanted a pet.

Plunkett also testified that he was aware of the state law requiring all animals be held for seven days before euthanization. Despite this, many of the owner-surrender euthanizations would occur immediately upon surrender. The township would charge $100 for this, something Yaede called a “service” for residents. The shelter has since ceased this practice, although Yaede said she has had many residents ask her to bring it back.

Schirmer, for her part, said she has not heard any residents request the return of the owner-surrender euthanizations at the shelter.

Yaede defended the policy, saying the issue is with the state law requiring animals be held seven days.

“I believe from the feedback I receive from the citizens of Hamilton Township, they ask me to explain the reasoning why if someone brought their pet in who obviously their health has deteriorated as to stop eating, stop drinking and unable to hold their body weight, why these pets are made to suffer for seven additional days,” Yaede said. “Residents have said that practice is in itself inhumane.”

The state agrees. State law has a stipulation requiring an animal who might be sick to be seen by a veterinarian. If the veterinarian determines the animal should be euthanized, the law allows it before the seven-day hold has expired.

This did not happen in Hamilton.

“She admits to that seven-day period where they were euthanizing owner-surrenders,” Schirmer said. “It’s OK if you want to euthanize owner-surrenders, but if you have a sick animal that’s brought before you, you need to make sure it actually is sick. Consult with a veterinarian. Document what you have done. And if that animal is in bad shape and needs to be put down, then that’s OK. You can document that. But they weren’t doing any of that.”

The county prosecutor’s investigation found that 329 animals—236 cats and 93 dogs—were euthanized in a 34-month period before the state-mandated waiting period expired. Among those animals were 46 cats discovered in May 2017 at a home occupied by a hoarder. Bencivengo told the council subcommittee the cats had upper respiratory infections and ringworm and “were in bad shape.”

The investigations discovered that the township also violated a second state law, one that requires the shelter to be inspected annually.

Typically, the municipal health officer inspects the shelter. Last summer, it was revealed that Plunkett, Hamilton’s health officer, had never inspected the Hamilton shelter or asked someone else to do it in his stead, believing it to be a conflict of interest since the shelter also fell under his responsibilities as director of health and recreation.

The council subcommittee report said Plunkett seemed unconcerned about the lack of inspections at the shelter, only raising concern about inspections and lack of standard operating procedures once interest in the shelter and its issues increased.

Many of the animal shelter’s dogs wound up finding homes after their day at town hall, Yaede said, including Tullula (center, in right photo) who former county executive Bob Prunetti adopted “within three minutes.”

Yaede said she was not aware of Plunkett’s stance until after the July 2018 state inspection, and that the administration has since considered moving the shelter under the responsibilities of the business administrator to avoid future issues.

The council subcommittee report included plenty of other recommendations for the administration to consider. It said the shelter needs better organization and structure, better supervisory leadership, upgraded policies and procedures and must continue to prohibit owner-surrenders and the use of euthanasia.

It also recommended separating the health director and health officer roles, as well as the animal control officer and animal shelter manager/staff roles. Bencivengo and Plunkett both pulled one of those double duties.

Yaede said many changes already have been made, some as far back as last July. The township hired a new supervising veterinarian for the shelter, Dr. Marian Boden, in the fall of 2018. The shelter currently does not have a manager, following Bencivengo’s retirement in March, but Yaede said the township is in the process of hiring someone. The existing staff and volunteers have been running the shelter in the interim.

The shelter previously had an exclusive relationship with the AFEW rescue group, but Yaede said the township has started relationships with other animal rescue and shelter groups. It has done this, she said, by sending an email every Friday listing the animals available at the shelter.

The township also has purchased and implemented a new recordkeeping system called PetPoint at the shelter.

“As we stated last year, the deficiencies at the animal shelter were addressed,” Yaede said. “Promptly addressed. And they do not want to acknowledge that. That report showed they did not acknowledge that improvements were made at the shelter. And the day the report was issued, it was moot. They’re aware. The residents have connected the dots. They see the politics. They see that politics in Hamilton has changed for the worse. And they are not pleased.”

Schirmer said, despite the mayor’s claims that things have changed at the shelter, the township has yet to provide proof of the shelter improvements. She said PetPoint was only recently put into place, and only after the administration installed a different system that didn’t work the way the shelter needed it to. The system provided no audit trail and was unable to be secured.

Schirmer also said the subcommittee doesn’t know if PetPoint’s implementation is finished because the administration hasn’t responded to requests for information.

Schirmer said Yaede and her administration worked hard to obstruct the work of the subcommittee, frequently not replying to requests for information and cancelling interviews at the last minute. The subcommittee eventually subpoenaed administration officials in order to compel them to testify, a move Schirmer said was absolutely necessary for the investigation to proceed.

Yaede, however, called it unneeded political theater. She said the council subcommittee conducted the investigation unevenly, not always including the township clerk and interviewing some employees in public and others in private.

She believes it’s all part of the scheme to remove her from the mayor’s office.

“Their investigation, the way it was conducted, without a deadline, without consistent reports,” Yaede said. “It’s too much of a coincidence not to unequivocally say that politics has played a role.”