PAWS lawsuit involving former employee in a whistleblower capacity heads to mediation
FORT WALTON BEACH — Attorneys on opposing sides of a lawsuit filed last August against the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society met Friday to try to find a way to settle the case.
The suit, filed by former PAWS employee Manda Moore, alleges Moore was fired when she stepped up in a whistleblower capacity to accuse both former Executive Director Dee Thompson and the agency's previous board of directors of fiscal malfeasance.
Moore was the PAWS community development coordinator until her termination in September 2019. Thompson left the agency in February 2020 and Tracey Williams was hired as the new executive director four months later.
Williams has launched an ambitious program to change the way Okaloosa County's animal control agency and shelter is run.
"The University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program is very excited and hopeful that the time is right for positive change within PAWS," a report filed in January by Shelter Medicine Program Manager Cameron Moore (no relation) said. "Industry standards have evolved but practices at PAWS have not."
The lawsuit states Thompson misused and misapplied PAWS funds and made false statements in order to obtain or retain grant money. Manda Moore claims Thompson falsified the amounts of grant funds being spent for spaying and neutering.
The lawsuit also states Thompson lied about the number of animals euthanized by PAWS to obtain or retain grants and donations.
Moore said in her lawsuit that members of the PAWS governing board turned hostile toward her when she attended a board meeting and objected to them "using restricted funds for a purpose other than what the funds were supposed to be used."
Three days after the board meeting at which Moore spoke out, the lawsuit states, Thompson called Moore into her office and told her board members had decided she was not worth her salary and that she should quit.
Moore had never been disciplined at PAWS and, as a single mother, resisted the request to resign, according to the lawsuit. Thompson accused Moore of trying to undermine her, and ordered her to stay away from board meetings and board members, the suit said.
The lawsuit states Moore also made the board aware of her suspicions about Thompson and that Thompson had ordered her not to attend meetings or have contact with board members, the lawsuit states.
Two days later, Thompson fired her.
The suit claims PAWS retaliated against her because she spoke up against the financial impropriety she saw. It claims she suffered not only financial damage but physical and emotional damage as well.
Williams was among those in attendance at Friday's mediation conference. Court documents say as executive director she has full authority to sign off on any settlement agreement reached.
The mediation was expected to last through the day Friday.