‘Like he was my lawyer:’ State senator intervened in animal-welfare case

By: - October 19, 2021 4:54 pm

State regulators scaled back their punishment of a Davenport dog kennel this summer after a legislator intervened on the owner’s behalf. (Photo of dog by Angel Luciano via Unsplash; document from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship)

The owner of a Davenport dog kennel says state regulators scaled back their punishment against his business this summer after a state legislator intervened in the case on his behalf.

Earlier this summer, the Animal Playground boarding kennel in Davenport, run by Robert Burns, was visited by state inspectors working for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. At the time, the kennel was supposed to be shut down due to a license suspension triggered by a series of serious regulatory violations.

The kennel, however, was in full operation with 40 dogs milling about, inspectors reported.

Defying a state order to shut down typically results in additional penalties for a business owner. In this case, however, IDALS not only took no additional action against Burns, it reopened the case, rescinded its 30-day suspension order, reduced the suspension period from 30 days to 15 days, and then moved it to October to give Burns time to comply. They also gave him an additional five months to pay his fine.

The agency did all this without Burns ever filing an appeal on the original fine and suspension.

Burns says that’s because his state legislator, Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, went to bat for him in a lengthy telephone call with IDALS officials. Burns said Smith sat by his side at the kennel and argued his case for him, telling IDALS officials that an inspector could get shot peeking into the windows of the facilities they visit.

State Sen. Roby Smit is a Republican from Davenport. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

“He was almost acting like he was my lawyer,” Burns said. “You know what, he really let them have it. He stood up for us for, you know, one of the things that I had mentioned, which was them looking through our windows. He goes, ‘You know, Iowa is a stand-your-ground state.’ … He was like, ‘I want this on my desk by Friday – I want this, this and this.’ We had a two-hour meeting, and it was me, my mother, and Roby Smith, who was on my side. And we met with, like, the head person for the Department of Agriculture and the state’s top veterinarian.”

When asked for his take on what was said at the meeting, Smith declined to comment.

“I don’t feel the need to talk about it with you,” he told an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Monday. “So, we’re going to leave it at that, all right?  You can’t tell me what I am going to do or what I am not going to do, OK? I don’t work for you.”

Burns said Tuesday that shortly after Smith had that conversation with the Capital Dispatch, the senator called him at the kennel.

“He was like, ‘Man, I’m married, I don’t need people coming to my house,’” Burns said. “You know, he said, ‘Reporters, I know how these people work.’ He was like, just kind of, ‘Leave my name out of it.’”

Burns’ mother, Cindy Martin, said that during the August telephone call with IDALS officials, Smith challenged the agency on inspectors videotaping their visits to businesses and looking through windows.

“He said, ‘Is it your business practice to have inspectors peek through windows,’” Martin said. “He was like, ‘You know, Iowa is a stand-your-ground state and in the wintertime, it’s dark here and this isn’t a very good neighborhood, and I’m concerned for your employees, your inspectors. Somebody might feel threatened and it might not turn out too good for your inspectors. So do you have a list of rules that your inspectors have to follow?’ He said, ‘I want those rules in my email by the end of the day.’”

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So what does Burns think of IDALS and the agency’s inspection process?

“It’s all bull—-,” he says. “I would like to sue them.”

‘An excessive amount of blood’

When asked why the agency reopened the case and reduced the suspension after the appeal period had lapsed and after Burns violated the suspension order, IDALS spokesman Keely Coppess provided a written statement that said in part:

“The department uses settlement agreements and final orders to attempt to expedite resolutions of administrative actions by obtaining admittances from the person/entity subject to an administrative order and to provide a level of finality to legal disputes between the parties.”

Coppess added that “even after a potential appeal period expires, individuals may continue to make further legal arguments, including whether an appeal had been made in a timely manner. Settlement agreements allow the department to obtain admissions from a licensee, finalize matters, and prevent future litigation costs.”

The Iowa Capital Dispatch asked Coppess for details of the phone call with Sen. Smith – when it took place, what was asked of the agency, who was involved, etc. – but she did not respond.

The news organization has filed a formal Open Records Law request for any notes and recordings related to the call. The agency has yet to acknowledge that request.

IDALS records indicate Burns has a history of regulatory problems.

In July 2018, he was cited for failing to provide the dogs in his custody with an adequate level of care. He later admitted he had repeatedly accepted an excessive number of dogs into his kennel and had not provided them with adequate supervision. His license was suspended for four days, and he was fined $500.

In October 2019, IDALS received a complaint about a dog that was attacked and injured by other dogs at Animal Playground. The dog that was attacked had sustained injuries that required $490 worth of medical attention, Burns acknowledged.

When inspectors arrived at Animal Playground to investigate the complaint, they saw dogs moving back and forth between the segregated play areas though “a large damaged area of the chain link.” They also noted “other areas of damage that presented injury hazards to the pets. There was, in fact, blood drawn and documented in the pictures.”

Inspectors viewed a video recording of a dog named Molly being attacked first by a dog named Poppy and then by two more dogs named Bentley and CeCe. The inspectors concluded the size of the play group they observed was in violation of state regulations, as was the number of staff supervising the area.

“There were a number of cages that were not usable but put into use during our visit,” the inspectors said in their report. “These cages possessed obvious hazards that posed a distinct threat to pet safety.”

One, if not all, of the play areas was reported to fall below the square-footage requirements imposed by the state. Also, a dog with an injured toe or nail was not attended to until the owner arrived at the kennel to pick up the animal, which meant “there was an excessive amount of blood spread throughout the facility,” inspectors said. They also noted an open floor drain that had no guard over it, creating a hazard for dogs.

Eventually, Burns was fined $1,000 and his license was suspended for 10 days.

‘A lack of food and water’

In early February 2020, inspectors returned to Animal Playground and told Burns to repair the dog enclosures due to an excessive amount of rust and wires that were poking into them, creating a “dangerous” situation for the dogs inside. Also, the inspector said the “back room” that served as a play area for dogs could not be used until “it is brought up to code.”

A week later, the inspectors returned and noted violations they said they had missed during prior inspections such as “the rusted inlet water pipes in the north play area.” The inspector also noted no improvements were made to the back room.

On June 15, 2020, inspectors returned, reporting that they were there to make sure the business was not in operation due to the 10-day license suspension in effect at that time. The inspectors wrote in their report that the business was up and running and “Bob and receptionist Cindy stated that they closed for business from May 9th through May 19th and felt he had served his suspension. He stated he has not yet paid the associated fine.”

State records indicate IDALS went along with Burns, and in subsequent filings the agency indicated it considered the suspension to have been served in May, when Burns said he was closed.

In May of this year, the inspectors returned in response to a complaint of animal abuse. The agency cited Burns for numerous violations, such as unsupervised play groups; play groups that had more than the allowable maximum of 15 dogs; a lack of food and water; unvaccinated dogs; inadequate recordkeeping; kennel enclosures with wire flooring; and allowing “sexually intact” dogs in playgroups, which allegedly resulted in dogs mating.

As a result of that inspection, IDALS again suspended Burns’ license, this time for 30 days, and it imposed a $3,000 fine to be paid within one month.

On July 28, inspectors went to the facility to make sure it was shut down. When they arrived, they saw it was in full operation with 40 or so dogs on site.

Burns says it was after this visit that he contacted his state senator and the two of them talked to IDALS officials.

Within four weeks, IDALS had reopened the case and reached a “settlement” with Burns. The deal called for Burns’ license to be suspended for 15 days, in October, and to pay a $3,000 fine by January 2022.

Animal Playground is now back up and running, but Burns says it’s “only a matter of time” before he has more trouble with IDALS.

“What they’re trying to do is catch me off guard,” he said. “They want to shut me down.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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