Activists call on DA Spota to probe dog shelter operation

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Former Riverhead councilwoman Rose Sanders addresses the media and others Monday outside the town shelter.

A cadre of animal lovers and civic activists is turning up the heat on Riverhead Town officials who have been dealing with mounting pressure to expel head animal control officer Lou Coronesi from the municipal dog shelter, where he oversees day-to-day operations.

At a press conference that drew several members of local and regional media to the Youngs Avenue shelter Monday, Calverton resident and civic leader Rex Farr announced he would be sending a letter to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota demanding an investigation “into the operations and management of the Riverhead Animal Shelter, and in particular, head Animal Control Officer Lou Coronesi, a man who has consistently broken the law.”

The letter complains of Mr. Coronesi’s illegally transporting endangered species in Arizona, driving with a suspended license in that same state while still being employed by Riverhead Town, lying to Supervisor Sean Walter by telling the supervisor a dog bit a child in the face, having more than 260 days away from the job in 2009 and 2010 and banning volunteers from the town shelter.

“Why is this man being protected?” Mr. Farr asked those in attendance Monday.

He said if the town simply moved Mr. Coronesi into another position outside the shelter, he would be happy.

Supervisor Sean Walter indicated at last Wednesday’s Town Board meeting that he is working on a plan to transfer Mr. Coronesi to another department, at Mr. Coronesi’s request, but he said certain procedures must be followed in order to do so.

Animal groups, particularly RSVP (Riverhead Shelter Volunteer Program) have been at odds with Mr. Coronesi for years.

Their anger came to a head in December when a dog named Bruno was euthanized early in the morning on Dec. 21, despite a request the night before by Councilman Jim Wooten, the shelter liaison on the Town Board, to hold off the euthanization until he more fully researched the matter.

Mr. Walter stated at a Town Board meeting that night that Bruno had bitten a child in the face as an explanation for why the dog had to be killed. But the county health department bite report of the incident states that Bruno bit his 22-year-old owner in the finger while he was trying to break up a fight between two dogs, and that the wound was superficial.

Mr. Walter later said he got his information from Mr. Coronesi.

“We in Riverhead want only to have a shelter that is run humanely and one that we can be proud of,” Mr. Farr said. “Not much to ask, but impossible under present circumstances.”

Mr. Coronesi did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

In August 2003, when Mr. Coronesi was arrested in Bagdad, Ariz., after he was seen illegally capturing a gila monster and a snake, he was charged with hunting without a license, possessing wildlife unlawfully and possession of restricted wildlife, according to Arizona police reports, which state that he later pleaded “no contest” to the charges, all misdemeanors. Mr. Coronesi was also charged with two counts of driving with a suspended license in that same incident.

There currently are two shelter volunteers who have been suspended, Pat Lynch and Linda Mosca. Ms. Lynch — a Southampton and New York City resident who successfully sued Southampton Town after she was banned from its shelter — said three Town Board members have now agreed to let her go back to volunteering, although she has received no official notice that she can do so.

Former Riverhead councilwoman Rose Sanders, who volunteers at the shelter and also spoke at the press conference, said her main concern is financial, as there have been bills showing the town paid veterinary fees for cats,  and in one case, a goat, when the shelter is supposed to be a dog-only shelter.

The bills, which Glen Cove resident Gail Waller obtained, in one instance show the town was billed by two different veterinarians for a dog that, according to those records, was in both vet offices simultaneously.

Ms. Waller has told the News-Review she spends thousands of dollars of her own money to help dogs from the Riverhead shelter.

Mr. Farr said the animal shelter issue has been politicized as well since Mr. Wooten announced his intention to challenge Mr. Walter for the Republican supervisor nomination. He theorized no action would be taken until the Republican Party sorted out its internal strife.

“This is why this is going to Spota,” he said. “I have no alternative.”

Mr. Farr had threatened to send a slightly different version of that letter to Mr. Spota at last Wednesday’s Town Board meeting unless he got assurance that Mr. Coronesi would be moved out of the ACO position and either fired or moved to a different department.

“I’m trying to work this out with you,” Mr. Walter said, while not vowing to do so. “I’m trying to work within the constraints of personnel issues, within the restraints of the retirements that are happening. Rex, I think what you’re asking is doable, but I can’t ramrod it through. I have to have respect for the personnel.”

He said certain employees have asked for transfers and he is trying to work that through the constraints of the system.

Mr. Walter said he wouldn’t speak any further on the matter because of personnel issues that can’t be discussed publicly.

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Editor’s note: A direct quote alleging fraud at the Riverhead Animal Shelter was incorrectly attributed to former councilwoman Rose Sanders in the April 28 print edition of this story. The quote had been removed from the web version. The News-Review regrets the error.