Updated: 05/06/2014 10:26 PM
Created: 05/06/2014 9:00 PM KSTP.com
By: Beth McDonough
There's new legal trouble for one of Minnesota's best known charities. There was a shakeup, an investigation and now a lawsuit has been filed against the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone.
The sanctuary, which is about 1 1/2 hours north of the Twin Cities, is one of 9,000 non profits registered with the state. It relies on private donations to operate.
Six former employees filed a lawsuit saying they were fired or forced to resign because they told the Board of Directors, that the executive director was misusing the charity's money. KSTP asked Trista Fischer what she wanted out of filing a complaint. “Myself and others are hoping we can get our jobs back at the Wildcat Sanctuary," Fischer said.
She helped care for the 100-plus cats at the refuge, "it wasn't just a job for us, it’s something we want to do for life," Fischer said.
She added her name to the civil lawsuit against the non-profit. The suit relies on Minnesota's Whistleblower Act, and alleges defamation and retaliation toward six staffers who reported founder Tammy Thies used charity money to pay for personal things like groceries, makeup, even skydiving lessons for her husband. "They saw what was happening, they spoke up, they did the right thing and they got punished for it. That's why this case is important," according to her attorney, Craig Brandt.
Brandt says 20 percent of his business comes from whistleblower lawsuits. The law protects employees from retaliation if they report illegal behavior by the employer. "This lawsuit absolutely sends a message that the whistleblower statute applies to all employers in Minnesota," Brandt said. It also includes state agencies and private companies, not just non-profits.
"I don't regret coming forward because if we didn't come forward then it would continue, there would be no presentation that you need to stop this behavior," Fischer said.
"The Wildcat Sanctuary plans to defend vigorously the claims in court," Rob Leer, a spokesman for the charity said.
KSTP’s initial reports led the Minnesota Attorney General to investigate. Then last month, the Sanctuary agreed to improve policies and financial practices.