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Former employees at scrutinized Wildcat Sanctuary: We were fired for whistleblowing

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Six former Sandstone Wildcat Sanctuary employees have filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the nonprofit, claiming they were fired because they reported illegal activities by the sanctuary's founder.

According to a press release, the complaint says all six reported misconduct on the part of founder Tammy Thies to the board of directors in March of 2013. They claimed Thies used donated money to buy personal items and pay personal bills. Eight months later, five of the former employees were "abruptly terminated," and the sixth forced to resign – they say because of their whistleblowing.

The Minnesota Whistleblower Act states an employer can not fire, threaten or discipline an employee that reports suspected illegal activities to authorities. The former employees worked as keepers or in administrative roles for the sanctuary.

The six say recent findings by Ramsey County – which state Thies, among other things, bought books and underwear, and paid her property taxes with sanctuary funds – support their claims of misconduct. Meanwhile, the complaint notes multiple members of the board of directors have resigned, including the chair. Yet Thies remains the sanctuary's executive director.

Claims Against Thies

Thies was first accused of misusing donated funds to pay for personal items back in March of 2013.

An internal investigation that summer by the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey and Whitney found donor money was spent to pay for Thies’ husband’s skydiving lessons, remodeling at her house, personal meals and groceries and food for her personal pets. Sanctuary board President Gail Plewacki denies the law firm’s claims and said a second audit in September, which Plewacki says can’t be shared publicly by law, found no wrongdoing.

In April of 2014, the Ramsey County District Court issued a 30-page document detailing more improper spending: It said Thies used donated funds to purchase two books by comedienne Chelsea Handler, women’s underwear and hair-removal products, received double reimbursements for some items, used sanctuary money for her personal property taxes in 2009 and 2010 and was paid more than $4,900 for use of her cellphone from 2009 to 2012, among other things.

Thies was removed from the top job following Dorsey and Whitney’s report, but was reinstated in the fall. She hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Wildcat Sanctuary's Response

The Assurance of Discontinuance, as the document is called, is signed by Plewacki but does not constitute admission of guilt. If the sanctuary violates the agreement, it could face sanctions or legal proceedings. The organization says the money used for Thies’ property taxes has been repaid and as part of an agreement with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, the nonprofit’s bookkeeping has been outsourced to an accounting firm.

In a response letter, Thies wrote she and the board have learned a lot from the accusations and are taking the steps necessary to ensure they keep the public’s trust. She admits they made mistakes, which resulted in scrutiny, but stressed the cats always did – and will – come first.

The sanctuary, which is the state’s only certified refuge for large wildcats, also put out this video acknowledging they've "made mistakes that brought scrutiny," while also thanking supporters for continued support.

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