Kennel owner sought help from Naig before sanctions were lessened

By: - October 26, 2021 3:52 pm

After twice ignoring license suspensions, the owner of a Davenport dog kennel contacted Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig in an effort to avoid additional state penalties. (Photo of dog by Hermes Rivera via Unsplash; document and inset photo of Mike Naig courtesy of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship)

After twice ignoring license suspensions and then refusing to pay a fine, the owner of a Davenport dog kennel contacted Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, as well as his state senator, as part of a successful effort to avoid additional state penalties.

The involvement of Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig is referenced in newly disclosed records from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

It’s not clear from the available records whether Naig responded to any of the concerns raised by either the kennel owner or his state legislator, Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport.

IDALS officials have declined to explain their rationale for not imposing additional penalties against Robert Burns, owner of Davenport’s Animal Playground, after Burns remained open in the face of two license suspensions this past summer. In response to a request to speak to Naig, an IDALS spokesman told the Iowa Capital Dispatch on Tuesday, “The department does not have any further comments on this situation.”

The newly disclosed records make clear that IDALS not only took no action against Burns for the license-suspension violations, it lessened the previously imposed penalty by retroactively cutting his suspension in half, even though Burns had missed two separate deadlines to file an appeal.

They also indicate that even after Smith intervened, Burns felt IDALS officials weren’t “working with” him on reducing the penalties, and so he contacted Naig to plead his case.

Burns has said Smith first went to bat for him in a lengthy telephone call with IDALS officials in late July. According to Burns, Smith sat by his side at the kennel and argued his case for him, warning IDALS officials that an inspector could get shot peeking into the windows of the facilities they visit.

“He was almost acting like he was my lawyer,” Burns said. “You know what, he really let them have it.”

Smith has declined to comment on the phone call, telling an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter, “I don’t feel the need to talk about it with you … 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.”

‘I will not pay the $3,000 fine.’

The newly disclosed state records provide a timeline of the events that unfolded before and after Burns contacted Smith and Naig:

May 3: IDALS inspectors visit Robert Burns’ Davenport doggie-daycare kennel, Animal Playground, and make note of several violations. Burns is given 14 days to correct the problems.

May 17: Because some of the violations found May 3 are serious, repeat violations, IDALS issues an order, to be served on Burns by certified mail, suspending his license for 30 days, and giving him 30 days to appeal that action.

June 21: The deadline for an appeal passes with no action taken by Burns. The license suspension takes effect.

June 22: IDALS inspectors return to Animal Playground to see if Burns is closed as required. They find the kennel is open for business, with dozens of dogs milling about. Burns tells inspectors he never received the certified letter and was unaware of any suspension. As a result, IDALS agrees to reissue the suspension order and have it served on Burns, in person, by the sheriff’s office on June 25. The agency also restarts the clock on the appeal deadline, giving Burns an additional 30 days to challenge the suspension.

July 22: With the second appeal deadline looming, Sen. Smith writes to IDALS Regulatory Division Director Maury Noonan and says, “I have an issue with a constituent I need to talk to you about, please call me at your earliest convenience.”

July 26: With no appeal filed, the license suspension again takes effect.

July 27: Noonan, IDALS Legislative Liaison Colin Tadlock, State Veterinarian Jeff Kaisand and Assistant State Veterinarian Katie Rumsey meet in Noonan’s office and participate in a phone conversation with Burns and Sen. Smith. According to a typed IDALS memo documenting the conversation, Burns begins the meeting by saying inspectors are “nitpicky” during their visits, but admits he has remained open for business, despite the notice of suspension served by the sheriff. During the call, Smith asks IDALS about its authority to have inspectors shoot video at the businesses they visit and whether it is customary for them to not inform business owners of their presence when they arrive on the scene.

July 28: As a follow-up to the previous day’s phone call, IDALS sends Smith an email indicating inspectors are allowed to shoot video at licensed facilities in order to document regulatory violations. The agency also says that while a business owner “can demand that an inspector stop an inspection” or stop taking photos or shooting video, that could be considered interference with the regulatory process and additional penalties might be imposed. The agency also tells the senator that upon arriving at a facility, inspectors are to immediately identify themselves and are not to conduct an inspection when the owner or their authorized representative isn’t present.

Aug. 5: Unhappy with the outcome of the July 27 telephone call, Burns emails Naig and complains about IDALS and the license suspension. “There is no working with the current inspectors,” Burns tells Naig. “The inspectors are currently stopping by my facility almost daily and are using a cell phone to record the daycare dogs … This is beyond harassment, highly unnecessary and should stop immediately … I am desperate for this treatment to stop and need immediate attention to this matter.” As an attachment to his email, Burns sends Naig a copy of a recent letter he sent to Assistant Attorney General Jacob Larson stating that he had no intention of paying a fine and advising Larson that Sen. Smith had already “reached out to the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. Mike Naig, to advise him of the details as to how unfairly I have been treated … I will not pay the $3,000 fine, or any amount of fine for that matter.”

Aug. 16: Burns is hand-delivered a letter from IDALS warning him his license is under suspension and that the agency “has verified that Animal Playground is still operating in violation of the suspension.” The letter points out Burns could now be subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for each day he has operated without a license, and he could also be hit with a license revocation. The agency adds that it is “willing to entertain an offer of settlement” that would include some form of a license suspension and civil penalty. IDALS emails Smith a copy of its letter.

Sept. 17: IDALS officials write to Smith and inform him that the agency has reached a settlement agreement with Burns. The agency agrees that the suspension period – which by then was already over – would be cut in half, to 15 days, and that its imposition would be delayed until October. Burns will have until January 2022 to pay the $3,000 fine.

‘Leave my name out of it.’

The letters from Burns to Larson and Naig allege IDALS inspectors have held him to strict standards of compliance, but have not done the same with a competitor that “has had dogs dying and nothing is done.” In his letters, Burns also claimed that previous IDALS inspectors “were willing to work with me and aid in helping me be successful, instead of trying to put me out of business.”

Burns’ mother, Cindy Martin, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch that during the July 27 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.’”

Burns has said that shortly after Smith was contacted by the Iowa Capital Dispatch about his role in the case, 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.’”

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.

After inspectors arrived at Animal Playground to investigate the complaint, they 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.

As a result of that inspection, Burns was fined $1,000 and his license was suspended for 10 days.

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 10-day license suspension was later imposed.

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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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