A lawsuit filed in Pine County on Tuesday alleges that six former employees of the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota, were either fired or forced out of their jobs for reporting that the executive director had misused funds.
The whistleblower suit comes on the heels of a state investigation of the nonprofit, which houses dozens of wild and domestic cats.
That investigation found executive director and founder Tammy Thies misused the organization's funds on personal items like clothes and books, as well as to pay utilities at her home without board approval.
The suit alleges that all six paid staff members contacted former board chair Charles Durant in March 2013 to report that Thies had misused funds and supplies and that Thies retaliated against the employees by unfairly criticizing their performance.
In early October, one of the workers suing resigned citing "hostile working conditions." After Thies had been reinstated as executive director, current board chair Gail Plewacki met with three of the employees on Nov. 4 to tell them they'd been terminated. Two other staff members were put on leave by board members and fired within the week.
The workers say they were told that the organization was undergoing a restructuring.
The ex-employees are asking for compensation for loss of income and benefits, reinstatement and an award of damages for defamation. It's a clear cut case of a nonprofit board retaliating against staff who acted as whistleblowers, said Craig Brandt, the attorney representing the former Wildcat Sanctuary employees.
"What happened here is that our clients reported their concerns and then were later fired," Brandt said. "We believe that there's a direct connection between those reports and why they were let go."
A Wildcat Sanctuary spokesperson said the group plans to "vigorously defend these claims in court." The board is not commenting further.
The Wildcat Sanctuary's board of directors agreed to a deal with the Minnesota attorney general in April to restructure the organization.
They've agreed to reevaluate relationships with employees and with the executive director, add new board members and create structures to protect donor money and improve recordkeeping.