A Newfoundland charity is facing questions about its corporate governance and financial oversight as it continues to take donations from the public 18 months after closing its flagship horse sanctuary.

Former board members of the Horse and Pony Protection Association (HAPPA) are raising concerns about the operation of the group.

But HAPPA’s current president insists those concerns are unfounded.

“We’re doing the right things for the animals,” Dennis Bishop said.

'We haven’t done anything wrong with the animals. We haven’t done anything wrong. There’s no money spent on anything that is not 100 per cent directly related to the animals.'— HAPPA president Dennis Bishop

“We haven’t done anything wrong with the animals. We haven’t done anything wrong. There’s no money spent on anything that is not 100 per cent directly related to the animals.”

But CBC News has uncovered a number of issues with the charity’s operations and books.

While HAPPA’s revenues — and expenses — tripled in the years after Bishop took over as president, the charity’s treasurer says she has never seen any financial statements. Five current or former board members insist the HAPPA board has not met for years.

Bishop disputes both of those claims.

Even today, about 18 months after the sanctuary’s closure, the HAPPA website continues to solicit donations for hay, and stresses its role in caring for abused horses and ponies in the province.

“Our organization is a registered charitable organization which operates the Hopeall sanctuary,” the website’s main page says.

“Our budget is lean and all funds raised through donations go directly to providing care for our horses and ponies.”

‘Outreach and education’

HAPPA president acknowledges that the group’s focus has shifted.

“We’re an animal welfare organization,” Bishop said. “We still deal with cases. Our cases now, when we deal with them, are more from an outreach and an education perspective.”

The number of those cases, he said, has dropped to about 50 in 2013, compared with 300 in prior years.

Bishop said donations have also dropped, although it’s not clear by how much.

Dennis Bishop horse sanctuary HAPPA president CBC

Dennis Bishop is president of the Horse and Pony Protection Association. (CBC)

Although Bishop said HAPPA has made its 2012 submission to federal charity regulators, the 2011 report is the most recent one online.

Bishop agreed to provide HAPPA’s audited financial statements to CBC News, but didn’t do so before deadline.

Because HAPPA takes in less than $250,000 a year, the Canada Revenue Agency does not require audited financial statements — just a form filled out with the broad strokes of revenues and expenditures.

In 2011, HAPPA reported $25,000 in travel expenses and $35,000 in the “other” category in the group’s submission to federal regulators.

In 2008, the group funded its entire operation for $19,000.

Bishop attributed the increase to mileage claims for in-province travel and salaries for employees at the sanctuary because of a lack of volunteers.

Money from a fundraising campaign to build a new barn instead went to employee salaries, he noted.

Bishop said the group stopped actively fundraising in the latter half of 2012.

Dispute over euthanizing horses

CBC News spoke with former insiders and those who had dealings with HAPPA whose experiences raise questions about the operation of the sanctuary before its closure.

Bob Martin was the driving force behind HAPPA and the Hopeall sanctuary until cancer forced him to step aside in 2009.

He left the board in late 2010 after a dispute with Bishop over the euthanization of four horses at the sanctuary.

Martin visited the sanctuary before the animals were put down and thought they weren’t getting proper care.

"When you put four horses down in December, the first thing comes to your mind is.... Gosh, they don't want those four horses over the winter to have to keep and feed and someone to look after,” Martin said.

“That's what really put the suspicion in me at all."

Bishop disagrees, saying the decision was made by a veterinarian.

“Within any animal shelter, within any animal organization, the saddest days are the days when you have to say goodbye to animals,” he said.

“And I have to say there were a number of sad days that I’ve been involved.”

Queenie’s story

In 2010, Judith Pratt sponsored Queenie, an old Newfoundland pony, for $3,600 — a full year's fee, paid in advance.

"Rather than a monthly payment, I thought, no, go to the full shot and give them the money up front,” Pratt said.

That spring, she made a trip to the sanctuary to visit Queenie. But she didn't see the horse in the field.

"And when I turned around ... I saw a grave, with Queenie written on it,” Pratt said.

Judith Pratt Queenie HAPPA Hopeall sanctuary CBC

Judith Pratt sponsored Queenie, an old Newfoundland pony, at HAPPA's Hopeall sanctuary. But when she visited the site in 2010, she discovered that the horse had died. (CBC)

“And I was blown away, because nobody had called me and I wasn't aware that the horse had died."

Pratt didn't ask for the money back, but was shocked that she was paying to feed a dead horse.

Bishop said he has discussed the matter with Pratt, but declined to get into details.

“I’m not going to speak to that, because it’s not something that I should speak to,” he said. “It’s private information.”

Bishop did acknowledge that Pratt should have been contacted.

"The person that was responsible for getting in touch with Mrs. Pratt tried, I believe, a number of times to reach her and unfortunately we didn't connect with her," he said.

Last horses moved in mid-2012

In June 2012, the last five horses at the Hopeall sanctuary were moved to the Swansea community pasture in Victoria.

One of them, Lily, a foal born on the HAPPA sanctuary, ended up being taken from Swansea and passed from owner to owner before ending up on the meat truck bound for Nova Scotia.

Tammy Webber Lily HAPPA Hopeall sanctuary CBC

Tammy Webber helped co-ordinate the rescue of Lily. The horse now has a new owner and a new home at a private stable. (CBC)

A group of concerned horse-lovers scratched together a few thousand dollars and bought Lily back from the livestock dealer.

"We thought it was wrong that a horse born on a sanctuary ended up ... more than likely ... going to be looking at life from the inside of a tin can," said Tammy Webber, who helped co-ordinate Lily’s rescue.

Today, Lily has a new owner and a home in a private stable.

For his part, Bishop said that Lily changed homes a couple of times after leaving the HAPPA sanctuary and was no longer the charity’s responsibility.

“When we give and adopt an animal to a new owner, we give that person full ownership,” he noted.

Questions from board members

Meanwhile, former HAPPA board members are questioning the charity’s finances and oversight mechanisms.

While donations were pouring in, members of the HAPPA board of directors said they were being shut out.

Five current and former board members told CBC News there have been no board meetings in years.

They said they have never seen audited financial statements.

The Canada Revenue Agency does not require audited financial statements, just a form filled out to give the broad outlines of where the money went.

But those records were prepared in the past — in 2008, the board of directors did receive an audited financial statement of the year's revenue and donations. 

HAPPA's treasurer, Sherrylee Williams, said she has never counted donations or saw the books.

"As of late, I've been suspicious myself,” Williams said.

“I have never signed a cheque nor saw a book. I have never filed the corporate returns. Dennis has always done it."

Bishop said that’s not accurate.

HAPPA fence Hopeall horse sanctuary CBC

HAPPA's Hopeall horse sanctuary has not operated in about 18 months. (CBC)

“She has had some of the books for some periods of time. From time to time she does have the records and financial information,” he said.

“She has seen the financial information. She actually passes along the mail and the financial information to me. I’m an accountant, and I’ve been helping in doing some of the extra stuff.”

Until CBC News contacted Bishop last week, HAPPA had not filed an updated list of directors with the provincial registry of companies for four years.

He called that an oversight, stressing that HAPPA has provided the necessary information to the federal charities watchdog.

Williams is now listed as being off the HAPPA board, effective September. HAPPA’s new address is Bishop’s house, instead of Williams’s post office box in New Harbour.

Bishop also disputes claims by former board members about a lack of meetings since he took charge.

“We’ve had board meetings,” he said. “A number of board members have met over the past couple of years.… “We have had a board meeting within the last couple of years, yes sir.”

Bishop could not provide the exact date of any meetings, however.

He insists there is oversight for the money donated to HAPPA.

Bob Martin HAPPA horse sanctuary CBC

Bob Martin, pictured in 2008, was the driving force behind the horse sanctuary in Hopeall until illness forced him to step aside. (CBC)

“In terms of oversight, basically we sign off on expenditures that are applicable and obviously directly involved and related,” he said.

Bishop said that oversight is provided by the board members.

And he dismisses concerns expressed to CBC News by five current or former members of the board.

One of them — Martin, who was the driving force behind HAPPA until he stepped away because of illness — said he can’t believe what’s happened to the charity to which he once dedicated his life’s work.

"It's been breaking my heart that I never had the health to go up and just say ... enough of this,” Martin said.