The owner and an employee of a Berkeley Heights-based animal shelter have been criminally charged with falsifying records of more than a dozen dogs for the purposes of concealing negative aspects of their medical histories from prospective adopters, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay V. Ruotolo jointly announced Friday.
Toni A. Turco, 55, of Warren (Somerset County), owner of the Home for Good Dog Rescue Inc., in Berkeley Heights, is charged with 15 counts of fourth-degree falsifying records for the purpose of deceiving prospective pet owners, two counts of fourth-degree knowingly selling and/or exposing to human contact a pet with a contagious or infectious disease, and a single count of third-degree coercion by threatening to harm an employee’s reputation or livelihood. Richard A. Errico, 65, of New Providence, an employee at the shelter, is charged with a single count of fourth-degree false advertising for the purpose of deceiving prospective pet owners.
“When properly managed, animal shelters across Union County and beyond perform a deeply valued public service by giving previously abandoned or neglected pets a second chance in life,” Prosecutor Ruotolo said. “But what those in charge of this shelter did amounted to nothing short of a deliberate and flagrant violation of the public’s trust, with conduct that was not only unethical, but criminal.”
“New Jersey residents are entitled to an honest accounting of an animal’s health issues before deciding whether to adopt it as a pet,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Animal shelters play a crucial role in helping abandoned animals find a home, which is why it’s so important that the public can trust the information these shelters provide to consumers.”
The charges are the result of a long-term joint investigation involving the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and the Special Prosecutions Unit of the Prosecutor’s Office, led by Sgt. Vito Colacitti, into Home for Good Dog Rescue Inc., a nonprofit organization established in 2010.
The shelter, located at 465 Springfield Avenue, purports in its marketing materials to “rescue homeless dogs from high-kill shelters in the South” and provide them lifesaving care in a South Carolina-based veterinary facility before the dogs are transported to New Jersey for adoption.
The joint investigation revealed that the shelter had been scrubbing negative information from some of their dogs’ intake forms before putting them up for adoption – more than a dozen times, in fact, during a span of a little more than two years, according to Special Prosecutions Unit Supervisor and Assistant Prosecutor Melissa Spagnoli, who is prosecuting the case.
Also as a result of the joint-investigation, the Division of Consumer Affairs, within the Office of the Attorney General, issued a Notice of Violation and assessed a $2,500 civil penalty against Home for Good Dog Rescue, Inc. for failing to register with the Division’s Charities Registration Section. The Division’s records indicate that the organization filed an initial charity registration in 2010, but failed to file a renewal registration statement with the division after 2016.
The aforementioned adopted pets included a variety of breeds, ranging from types of hounds to designer breeds such as shih tzus, and were given names such as “Summer,” “Winston,” and “Dixie” before going to unsuspecting adoptive families.
A first appearance for Turco and Errico has been scheduled to take place at 9 a.m. on Friday, January 3, 2020 in the second-floor courtroom of the Union County Jail.
Third-degree criminal charges are commonly punishable by 3 to 5 years in state prison, while fourth-degree crimes can result in penalties ranging from probation to 18 months in prison.
These criminal charges are mere accusations. Every defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.
Unless otherwise exempt, charitable organizations or initiatives that raise over $10,000 a year must register with the Division’s Charities Registration Section. Home for Good Dog Rescue, Inc. was neither registered, nor exempt.
“Requiring charities to register provides us with the ability to oversee that charities are conducting business in compliance with consumer protection laws and regulations,” said Paul R. Rodríguez, Acting Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “We will not allow unregistered charities to operate outside of the oversight and protections New Jersey donors expect and deserve.”
The Division of Consumer Affairs urges consumers who receive solicitations to donate money to charity to search its Directory of Registered Charities or call the Charitable Registration Hotline at (973) 504-6215 during business hours, to ensure that an organization and/or professional fundraiser is currently registered or to report suspicious activity.