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Prosperous Times Ignite Internal Strife at Animal Care Facility : Charity: Dispute at Wildlife Waystation focuses on founder’s pay package and spending practices. Audit by state officials is under way.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Wildlife Waystation opened in 1977 on a mountainside in the Angeles National Forest, money was so tight that volunteers drew from their own pockets to help feed the neglected and abandoned animals housed in the refuge.

Today, the Waystation has a worldwide reputation, generous donors from the entertainment and business worlds, enough money to fund long-needed improvements and an ample salary for the group’s director.

But instead of resolving the facility’s problems, the wealth has divided the once fraternal group of animal lovers that oversee it, creating the most serious crisis in the refuge’s 18-year existence.

Six of the 14 members of the board of directors resigned in November in a dispute over paying the Waystation’s founder and director, Martine Colette, $11,000 a month--$6,500 in salary and $4,500 in rent for the land, which she owns.

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The package, approved Nov. 29 by a board majority, also includes $140,000 to pay salary, medical and retirement costs that she didn’t receive during the first 15 years that she ran the Waystation.

The resigning board members say they protested the package, in part, because the Waystation has invested $592,000 for the property over the past three years and yet Colette still has title to 140 acres of the 160-acre site.

“From my position, (the deal) was more fair to Martine Colette than it is for the Wildlife Waystation,” said Joe Williams, a former director and a 17-year volunteer.

Two other board members who resigned over the past two years said they had concerns that Colette was getting too much of the group’s money and making questionable expenditures, such as a safe in her home.

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Responding to such complaints, the state attorney general’s office has launched an audit of the Waystation’s finances. Charitable, nonprofit organizations are governed by dozens of state laws and corporation codes that prohibit the misuse of donations or the use of deception to divert funds to individuals, Deputy Atty. Gen. Peter Shack said.

“Basically, the money has to be used for charitable and public purposes, based on their articles of corporation,” he said. “It just can’t go into someone’s pockets, although it can be used to pay a salary.”

Colette has defended her management of the group’s money, describing the resignations as sour grapes over differences of opinion about how the refuge should be run. But she declined to comment further until the attorney general’s audit is completed.

Byron Countryman, the Waystation’s attorney and a current board member, defended the pay package, calling the allegations against Colette “groundless and without merit.” He noted that the agreement will not take effect until it is approved by the state attorney general’s office.

Nonetheless, the allegations have plunged the Wildlife Waystation into a controversy that threatens to dry up donations and scare off potential volunteers.

“Because money is involved, it has made enemies of us all, and in my mind it is disgusting,” current board member Dave Welling told supporters at an annual board meeting in January. “It is hurting the operation of our ranch, and it’s going to continue hurting it until we put it behind us.”

Colette, the daughter of a Belgian diplomat, bought the wooded 160-acre site for the Waystation in 1976, later selling her Hollywood costume business to expand the facility.

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A self-taught wildlife expert, she now oversees a full-time, 15-member staff and 40 full-time and 175 part-time volunteers dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and relocating abandoned or mistreated wildlife. It is the only licensed facility of its kind in the United States.

Even Colette’s detractors praise her personal sacrifice during the first 15 years, when she managed the Waystation without receiving a salary. But former board members say she changed in 1990 after Dorothy Wellborn Green--better known as Dolly Green, the last surviving child of oil magnate Burton E. Green--died and left the Waystation a $2.6-million bequest.

“I swear to you, I never loved anyone like Martine Colette,” said Judi Williams, who said she and Colette had been like sisters for 17 years. “But her whole personality changed.”

Once the group was out of the red, former board members say, Colette asked the board to reimburse her for her many years of sacrifice and began spending Waystation money freely.

Part of the problem, they say, stems from a longtime arrangement in which Colette received no salary but was provided rent, living expenses, use of a house on Waystation property and use of the group’s checkbook to pay for various Waystation costs.

Fred Perry, Colette’s executive assistant for almost three years before resigning in 1993, said she used Waystation funds to remodel her bathroom at a cost of about $3,000, install a $2,000 custom-built gun safe in the house and buy $2,500 worth of clothes and jewelry as Christmas gifts.

“She accuses everyone of having gold fever, but she herself is the one with that,” said Perry, adding that he provided copies of receipts to the attorney general’s office that he says support his allegations.

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He said he resigned because of concerns about Colette’s spending habits and because she harshly chastised him in front of other workers.

Aofter an audit of the Waystation’s books for 1988 to 1990, the Internal Revenue Service instructed the board to separate Colette’s personal expenses and the payments used to maintain and operate the facility, according to former board members.

The board attempted to do this in mid-1992 by putting her on a $60,000 annual salary. The pay package approved in November would increase that to $78,000 in addition to paying her the $54,000 in annual rent and $140,000 to settle other costs incurred over the years.

Waystation attorney Countryman said the package was only slightly different than an arrangement that the entire board approved several years earlier, providing Colette the same $4,500 per month in rent. The only difference, he said, was an increase in her salary and the $140,000 bonus.

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“I find (the criticism) so incredible because the other board members have voted for and paid these lease payments for years,” he said. “My heart goes out to Martine. She has always been there for the Waystation.”

Another dispute is over who should control the 160-acre property.

According to former directors and financial statements filed with the attorney general, the Waystation paid Colette $227,000 in 1992 to reimburse her for the $116,000 that she put up as a down payment for the land in 1976. The reimbursement included 5% accrued interest per year.

In December, 1993, the Waystation paid Colette another $365,000 so she could pay a mortgage due on the property after she had refinanced the land to pay for improvements at the Waystation, according to former board members.

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Several board members and supporters said they are angry because Colette continues to accept rent payments even after the board paid off her down payment and made the 1993 mortgage payment--for a total of $592,000.

Joan Haller, a former board member and longtime volunteer who left the group just days before the board resignations, said the entire property should have been turned over to the Waystation after the board agreed to make Colette’s mortgage payment.

Haller said she fears that the Waystation is going to use up most of the Dolly Green money on rent and salary for Colette.

“I’m very upset at what is happening because it’s an organization that was wonderful,” she said.

Ever since Colette made the down payment, Judi Williams said, the mortgage had been paid with Waystation donations, including the final $365,000 payment. Countryman, however, said he believes that Colette made all the payments until the final $365,000.

Another point of conflict is over plans to build a wildlife refuge in Arizona.

So far, just under $100,000 in Waystation funds have been spent to study the possibility of opening an Arizona facility, according to current and former board members.

Those who resigned say they oppose spending donations that were meant to benefit abused and neglected animals on a project in Arizona that may or may not be realized.

At the January board meeting, Welling argued that the Arizona project is needed because the Waystation has outgrown its current facilities. He added that the board plans to replace the money spent on the project with out-of-state donations.

Judi Williams said a consultant estimated that the Arizona facility would cost about $30 million. But she said the Waystation has an inconsistent track record of raising funds and would not be able to generate that amount.

The Wildlife Protection League’s vice president, Michael Bell, who has donated to the Waystation in the past, is concerned that the chances of building such a refuge in the middle of Arizona cattle country are slim without the support of neighboring ranchers.

“They are very pro-cattle and pro-sheep and anti-predator,” he said, noting that a Waystation in Arizona would house coyotes, bobcats and other predators. “In that area, predators are made into mincemeat.”


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