Lewis County Animal Shelter employees resign, consider lawsuit

Claudia Yaw

The Chronicle

After a whistleblower complaint at the Lewis County Animal Shelter, four long-term employees have resigned.

Now, they say their allegations against site manager Jennifer Teitzel — that she misappropriated donations, asked staff to falsify medical records, created a hostile work environment and put animals and the public in danger — are being swept under the rug.

The county’s investigation concluded last month, and Teitzel still retains her position, which she came into last summer. Teitzel again declined to comment on most of the allegations made against her.

Marcie Dekoker, Robin Williams, Lucy Ford and Rita Payne have described their ex-boss as a habitual liar and bully, alleging she stole donations, created “official-looking, but fake” donation receipts, regularly berated employees, asked them to falsify vaccine and leukemia tests and strayed from shelter safety policies.

A recent news release regarding an “imposter” posing as a shelter employee — later picked up by a television news station and The Chronicle — was a lie, the women say, meant to showcase Teitzel’s power.

According to Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Kevin McDowell, the women’s claims that they were retaliated against after bringing the concerns forward could not be substantiated.

But with regards to their allegations of Teitzels’ behavior, McDowell told The Chronicle via email that “it is often extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to conclusively prove the non-occurrence of alleged events.”

He later added that the county “did uncover problems relating to certain accounting and operational practices,” and that Teitzel will be asked to attend a training “and will likely be receiving a letter placed (in) her personnel file.”

The women say they were asked to return to work last month.

Dekoker said the decision is shocking.

“They didn’t answer any of the allegations of her behavior. They pretty much just buried their heads in the sand of most of all the illegal activities,” said Dekoker, an animal technician and shelter employee of 23 years. “For our own safety, there was no way. There was no way we could go back.”

The four employees’ attorney informed the county of their resignation in a May 25 letter, saying “the county has made its choice to not protect its employees.”

McDowell noted that the women declined to be interviewed individually for the investigation — a decision that was in line with their attorneys’ advice, according to Williams.

“This is fraud. This is a cover up,” Dekoker said. “I don’t know what this gal has on the county that they’re protecting her. But I’ve never seen anything so wrong.”

Some complainants point to the Teitzel family’s deep roots in Lewis County; Jennifer Teitzel’s husband, Bill, is the county’s top code enforcement official, and her son is a sheriff’s deputy. In 2016, The Chronicle wrote about the family’s 80th family reunion held in Centralia.

“They’ve got this county wrapped up,” Ford said. “The county’s going to stick with somebody who’s been there for nine or 10 months? That doesn’t even have the qualifications?”

In resigning, three of the women say their retirement will be impacted. Payne, an employee of nine years, said she was anticipating becoming a full-time staffer. Resigning felt like sacrificing “my whole livelihood,” she told The Chronicle.

“I mean, the whole time, the only thing we ever wanted was our jobs back and her gone. We weren’t going after money, other than hoping our attorneys’ fees would be covered,” Williams said. “Now that they pretty much ignored half of what’s going on, it just blows me away.”

In their absence, the women question the qualifications of who Teitzel has hired. Dekoker said it felt like Teitzel had an agenda to get rid of qualified staffers “that could question anything she was doing,” instead replacing them with “people she can manipulate more.”

“I’m hoping for the shelter’s sake that if they do start hiring people, that it’s people that are qualified, and not just her buddies,” Williams said. “Because that seems like who she intends on hiring.”

As for the future of the shelter, Williams says she hopes people continue to donate supplies to help the animals, “but I would just be careful with cash donations.”

“The people of Lewis County have been unbelievably generous to the animal shelter, and it just pains all of us to just see this money abused, and frittered away,” Ford said.

Meanwhile, the women are considering mounting a lawsuit against the county.