One day last month, a bizarre scene played out in the lobby of the Paws 2 Help animal care clinic on Forest Hill Boulevard: In front of customers waiting with their leashed dogs and crated cats, a 76-year-old British woman and an 89-year-old Florida man stood toe-to-toe barking at each other.
It was the latest public spat between Paws founders Eve Van Engel and Elton Gissendanner III since the Internal Revenue Service last year questioned spending and record-keeping at the nonprofit clinic the pair launched together back in 1995.
They used to be good friends, the animal lover and the retired veterinarian. Now, Van Engel refers to Gissendanner as “the enemy.”
“He goes around telling the employees, ‘You better find a new job because this place is going to be padlocked,”’ Van Engel says, describing his unannounced visits every couple of weeks to Paws clinics in West Palm Beach and Jupiter.
“I follow him and I keep saying, ‘Gissendanner’ — I won’t call him ‘Dr. Gissendanner’ anymore — ‘Gissendanner, you’re not welcome here. Please leave.’ And he says” — she lowers her voice to mimic his baritone — “‘I’m more entitled to be here than you. I’m on the board and you are illegal!’”
Gissendanner said he’s not trying to make a scene; that’s all Van Engel’s doing. He said he’s only trying to get answers that Van Engel won’t give him, specifically about whether she and another Paws officer have fixed the problems raised last year in an IRS audit.
At stake, he said, is the future of Paws 2 Help, which serves as a vet of last resort to thousands of needy pet owners. It employs seven vets at its two clinics, generating nearly $4 million a year in revenue.
The IRS fined Van Engel $3,100 after the audit showed she improperly used in 2014 a Paws 2 Help debit card, linked to the clinic’s donation money, to pay for personal meals and for $12,000 in dental work. The IRS also raised questions about Van Engel’s personal use of a Paws-owned house in Westgate and the use of Paws money to lease-purchase four Mercedes-Benz cars that were given to three Paws veterinarians and the wife of one of the vets.
Van Engel, who recently applied for a green card after living in Florida for 30 years as an undocumented immigrant, has paid back the money, which she says she intended to do anyway after borrowing it. The veterinarians bought the titles and leases on the cars. And she said she is working to correct other problems, including improved record keeping to show the clinic is serving low-income customers, a requirement for retaining tax-exempt status.
But Gissendanner said he is concerned Van Engel is still making decisions about spending Paws’ money since the IRS told the board she could no longer have anything to do with the organization’s finances.
He said Van Engel and another Paws officer agreed to make changes. But once the auditor left, they "went back to their old ways," he said.
Some of his allegations are being reviewed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which issues annual licenses to charitable organizations. A complaint also was made to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, but an email from an investigator said deputies were not permitted to look into an ongoing IRS case.
Van Engel blames the IRS issues on a former Paws accountant, Mary Contessa, for not properly advising her about the purchases. But emails obtained by The Palm Beach Post show Contessa warned Van Engel several times about questionable spending as early as 2013.
Although the infighting has not yet affected the daily business at Paws’ clinics, it has all but paralyzed its board of directors, a voting body that can’t make decisions because it is divided into two firmly entrenched camps: Van Engel and her ally, Paws President Sigrid Kumpe; and Gissendanner and Contessa.
And there’s another wrinkle: Van Engel refuses to recognize Contessa as a board member, even though Contessa and Gissendanner insist she was added to the board last summer with the IRS’ blessing to help resolve the audit problems.
“It’s a mess,” Gissendanner said in his Southern drawl. “Eve doesn’t want to face reality.”
‘He’s like a pit bull’
Meanwhile, Gissendanner said the IRS threatened to penalize the other board members if the problems were not fixed. But he and Contessa have no way of knowing whether any corrections have been made because Van Engel won’t show them Paws’ books.
Van Engel said she won’t show him the books because she’s concerned about his motives: She thinks he’s waging a campaign to destroy or take over Paws 2 Help because she said he’s jealous that she has built it into a popular clinic that treats about 40,000 dogs and cats a year.
“He is just a domineering bully,” she said. “My son says he’s like a pit bull. He’s got his teeth in and he’s not going to let go until his jaw breaks.”
To bolster her suspicions, Van Engel points out that Gissendanner is, in her words, “a convicted felon.” The former North Miami mayor went to prison in the late 1980s after being charged in an extortion case when he was secretary of the Florida Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Bob Graham.
Known as “Dr. G” by colleagues, Gissendanner said his criminal history is not relevant. He said his only motive is to prevent Paws, the “crown jewel” of all vet clinics he has worked with, from shutting down.
“Never was I ever in a position of wanting to destroy Paws 2 Help or take it over. I just want to save an organization I helped start in 1995,” said Gissendanner, who often refers to Van Engel as “an illegal alien,” as he did during that recent confrontation in the lobby of Paws.
“It’s not an Elton-against-Eve thing at all,” he said. “It’s Elton and Mary trying to work with Eve and Sigrid to help Paws 2 Help run smoothly.”
The problem, he said, is that Van Engel won’t relinquish control of a clinic that she has relied on for her living.
“You start challenging her, and you’ve got a big fight on your hands. I did not want to do that. I respected her for what she had done. She took nothing and made something good out of it to help animals. I don’t denigrate that at all. But in the process she forgot the rules. Or she never knew the rules. She just ran it like it was hers,” he said.
“It wasn’t until the IRS audit that I got a handle on the real Eve.”
As she greets customers in the lobby of Paws 2 Help, often stooping over to rub the belly of a dog or scratch the head of a cat, Van Engel can come across as a charming English woman.
“I’m not charming,” she says in an accent thick with her London roots. “I’m ruthless. You can’t run an organization like this by being a softie.”
In a series of interviews and email exchanges with The Post, Van Engel tried to answer all questions. She admits she has made “some mistakes” over the years dealing with the daily challenges of operating a nonprofit clinic, but she makes no apologies for her style, even if it rubs some people the wrong way.
“Some people are very cautious and don’t usually get very far. I’m not. I’m an adventurer and a risk-taker. That’s why we’ve got where we are. I work from the gut,” she said.
Van Engel was born in World War II London in 1941 and remembers walking through rubble left from the Blitz. She was born as Pearl Evelyn Harvey before acquiring the Van Engel name through her first marriage. She later starting using the name “Eve,” a short version of her middle name.
She said she first came to Florida decades ago for vacations. She decided to stay and eventually focused her passion on neglected animals.
“I started with nothing,” she added with a smile, “just a dream and a desire and load of oomph!”
She met Gissendanner in 1995, after hearing about his reputation as a respected veterinarian who shared her love for animals and could perform animal sterilizations in less than three minutes.
At the time, she said she didn’t know about Gissendanner’s turbulent political past. In the 1960s, he served two terms as mayor of North Miami and one term in the Florida House.
In 1979, Graham appointed him as the state’s top environmental officer, a proud achievement for a man born in 1927 on the grounds of a prison in Tallahassee where his father was in charge of roads and prison labor.
Gissendanner, whose mother was a second cousin to future president Jimmy Carter, became a key architect of the Save Our Coasts, Save Our Rivers and Save Our Everglades restoration projects.
But in 1987, he resigned in a scandal. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for writing a letter falsely saying a friend was an informant to help the man get a more lenient sentence for smuggling pot.
He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and was released in January 1989 after serving a year.
He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 2001 after a Homestead-based car rental outfit he owned went belly up. And he lost a final election bid for state House in 2008. But he focused most of his post-prison energy by opening spay and neuter clinics around Florida.
‘People instinctively like her’
Gissendanner said he was working in his Fort Myers clinic one day about 20 years ago when a blond-haired English woman walked in. She shared her vision of opening a clinic of last resort in West Palm Beach to serve needy pet owners who couldn’t afford a regular vet.
Dr. G liked Eve Van Engel’s passion. She had already launched Paws 2 Help two years earlier in 1995 as a thrift store to raise money for neglected animals. So, Gissendanner agreed to help her set up the first Paws 2 Help clinic on 25th Street in West Palm Beach in 1997. They became fast friends.
“I got into it to help her,” Gissendanner said. “She is bright. She is brave. People instinctively like her.”
He said he once loaned her $20,000, which she paid back, and he worked with other Paws vets from time to time on sterilizations and other procedures. But he mostly stayed behind the scenes, with Van Engel essentially running the operations while he spent time with his wife at their home near Sebring, two hours away.
It was Van Engel who endured most of the growing pains and “organized chaos” as Paws struggled on meager donations. Eminent domain and zoning issues forced the clinic to move to different locations, including a trailer powered by a generator in a Salvation Army parking lot on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard.
“Every time we got pushed out, we just shook the dust off, licked our wounds and just kept on going, determined to make a difference for needy animals,” she said.
She quickly became the public face of Paws 2 Help, often turning to the media for fund-raising help or to call attention to abused or neglected animals brought to the clinic. She once spent a month living in a Dumpster to call attention to the number of dogs and cats euthanized in Palm Beach County.
“Eve is Paws 2 Help,” Kumpe said. “She drinks, sleeps, eats Paws 2 Help.”
‘The $15 vet’
During the recession, as cash-strapped pet owners looked for cheaper options, Paws started to take off. In 2009, it generated $405,000 in revenue. By 2015 it had grown tenfold to an estimated $3.98 million. Only 1 percent of the money came from donations, tax records show.
“We’re known as the $15 vet,” Van Engel says, citing the fee for basic exams and vaccinations — much cheaper than what a private vet charges.
But that led to one of the problems cited by the IRS: Paws didn’t make customers show a financial need to get cut-rate prices. Van Engel conceded the paperwork would be too big a burden. It was just easier to give everyone the same price break and eliminate charges for the most needy customers.
“We explained that we do not turn away people who cannot pay, but we also do not ‘advertise’ that fact, as we would be inundated with people insisting that we are a free clinic,” Van Engel said. “We found a way to resolve this by telling the client we think we can find a person who will donate to this dog/cat. And this works very well to this day.”
Van Engel said she currently is paid $250 a week. Tax records show she amassed $50,000 in pay over seven years through mid-2015. She drives a small “smart car” owned by Paws. And she is still living for free in a house owned by Paws in Westgate, a low-income neighborhood west of West Palm Beach. Paws also pays the utilities on the house, which has a market value of $82,885, according to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser.
Van Engel said the credit for the clinic’s success belongs to her seven veterinarians, whom she said “are all paid very well and according to skills.” She won’t divulge their salaries but said in an email to The Post: “The IRS said we overpay them. As a charity we are only supposed to pay market average, but none of our vets are average.”
The average salary for a veterinarian in Florida is $93,750, according to SalaryExpert.com.
Paws had a $1.8 million payroll for 35 employees, documents produced by Van Engel reveal.
The vets are not tied to contracts, so as an incentive for them to stay, Van Engel arranged for Paws to spend more than $200,000 to lease-purchase four Mercedes-Benzes from 2013 to 2015. The cars were given to three vets and one vet’s wife.
In an email in May 2013, Contessa warned Van Engel that Paws would get “a total black eye” if the public found out that a nonprofit was buying luxury cars for its doctors.
Van Engel responded, in all-caps, “HOW COULD WE EXPLAIN TO THE WORLD THAT WE DO NOT HAVE TOP NOTCH DOCTORS BRINGING IN MAJOR MONEY BECAUSE THEY GOT BETTER DEALS LOCALLY?”
In an interview, Van Engel said: “I love my doctors. We were doing very well so I bought them cars. Why not? It was my pleasure to give them.”
Even though the emails show she had been warned by Contessa, Van Engel said she thought it was OK to buy the cars because the money came from service revenues, not donations.
“We don’t have (hardly) any donors. This is all earned income. And this is where the IRS says you are running it like a for-profit business,” she said. “Nobody told me you can’t do this, you can’t do that. We wouldn’t have done it.”
At the time, Contessa was following news accounts of a board takeover at Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary in Jupiter, where board members made criminal allegations against the longtime director. That prompted her to email a warning to Van Engel.
“I do think your current board or future board needs to be more involved in some of the decisions that are made,” Contessa wrote in July 2013, before she joined the board. “Whether they know it or not, they are all responsible if there is any mismanagement of funds.”
Contessa would not comment for this story other than to refer to minutes from an April board meeting when the IRS said her firm “was only engaged to prepare the tax return and would not be responsible for the prohibited transactions.’’
IRS comes calling
In July 2015, Paws started paying $3,300 a month to rent a Stuart storefront for use as a third clinic. But Van Engel said the plans never got going, in part because of the clash among board members — which didn’t occur until a year later — and the space has been vacant. She said the owner recently agreed to let Paws out of its lease.
In October of that year, Paws and Van Engel were sued by Sterling Investment Properties after Van Engel started renovating an office building it wanted to lease from Sterling in West Palm Beach, just west of Interstate 95 on Forest Hill Boulevard. According to the lawsuit, the work was started without Sterling’s permission, without permits and using an unlicensed contractor.
Paws paid Sterling a $100,000 settlement, said Anthony Petruzzi, a Sterling representative, who described Van Engel as “a calculating manipulative (expletive). She is not an innocent person. I’m glad they’re trying to get rid of her. I think it would be good thing for her organization.”
Paws opened its current West Palm Beach clinic in June 2016 in a renovated chicken restaurant on Forest Hill Boulevard, about a half-mile west of the Sterling building. The clinic opened as Paws officers worked with the IRS to correct the problems identified in the audit.
The IRS came calling in February 2016. Gissendanner denies that he or Contessa filed a complaint. Two months later, IRS agent Adilad Caballero attended a Paws board meeting.
According to meeting minutes recorded by Contessa, Caballero told the board it was responsible for conducting regular meetings at least four times a year and keeping accurate records of services provided to low-income customers. The agent also told board members to pay for personal items with their own money instead of with Paws money — even if it would have been reimbursed to Paws.
Caballero also explained that the IRS could have revoked Paws’ tax-exempt status because of the violations. Instead, the IRS chose “a slap on the wrist” and allowed Paws to continue operating as long as they comply with the IRS recommendations, according to the minutes.
At a Paws meeting three months later, Caballero said Van Engel could not be a paid Paws employee “because of her illegal status in the U.S.,” according to the minutes. Van Engel questions the accuracy of the minutes because Contessa recorded them.
“The IRS understands we are not experienced in this,” Van Engel said to The Post. “We all make mistakes. But these are mistakes I should have known about. Mary Contessa wasn’t really watching what she was supposed to be doing for us.”
Van Engel says the IRS audit is closed and the IRS is not coming back. But Gissendanner said the IRS agent told the board that he would be back to follow up on the audit. He doesn’t know when the IRS will be back, but said he has been asking Caballero to return because Van Engel and Kumpe won’t show him the books.
The IRS would not comment for this story.
Paws buys a house
Just before the IRS came calling, Paws in January 2016 paid $180,000 for a three-bedroom home in Jupiter about a mile from Paws’ clinic on Indiantown Road. Paws advertised the house to recruit vets to its new Jupiter clinic. Van Engel said she also would use the house “because I hate driving.”
Interviews and internal records obtained by The Post reveal that Van Engel contributed about $60,000 of her own money to the purchase. But after the IRS started asking about other Paws properties, Contessa advised Van Engel to move the Jupiter house off Paws’ books.
That prompted Van Engel and Kumpe in April 2016 to form a company called Eve201 LLC, which bought the house from Paws in June 2016 for $125,000, bringing Van Engel’s investment in the house to $185,000. Six months later, she sold the house for $190,000.
The Post obtained documents that raise questions about whether Paws made payments on the house while Van Engel owned it.
The documents show that Paws’ handyman made two payments to the property’s mortgage holder, Source Financing, totaling $6,750. The amount matches exactly the payments due on the house for the six months that Eve201 owned it.
To explain the transactions, Van Engel said she paid the handyman $10,000 to prepare Paws’ properties for Hurricane Matthew, which blew through Palm Beach County without making landfall. When asked about the handyman’s payments to Source Financing, she said she didn’t know anything about them. So she checked with the worker.
His explanation? He farmed out some of the hurricane-preparation work to a laborer who worked for Source Financing and paid him the $6,750.
Van Engel did not provide The Post with any independent proof that she made the house payments.
Eve gets married
Prompted by the IRS audit, Van Engel in February applied for a green card, which would allow her to legally live and work in the United States. (Kumpe, a native of Germany, has a green card.) Van Engel, who expects to get the green card by the end of the year, admits she has been living in Florida “undocumented” for 30 years but only because it never occurred to her to apply for citizenship.
“I never really considered it,” she said. “I could have applied but I didn’t want to spend the money to do the filing when we could spend the money on the animals. That’s what we’re here for.”
A month before she applied for the green card, Van Engel got married in Hobe Sound on Jan. 30 to Lloyd Joe Fisher. It was the third marriage for Van Engel, who said she met Fisher, 73, years ago when he was working for a dog-rescue group.
Van Engel, who has a work visa, said she’s not worried about getting deported under President Trump’s tough immigration policies. But her immigration lawyer, Jackie Delgado, said: “There is a heightened danger for everybody.” Still, Delgado said Van Engel should be fine because “she has no negative immigration history and she doesn’t have any arrests.”
Gissendanner said he never would have gotten involved with Van Engel in 1995 if he had known she was “an illegal alien” – a phrase he often repeats when talking about her role in the Paws controversy.
Van Engel says she never would have gotten involved with Gissendanner if she had known he is a felon.
The dispute has divided many longtime Paws supporters and hurt the morale of Paws’ 35 employees who wonder about the organization’s future.
“Eve is a fantastic person. She has done a lot with Dr. Gissendanner to build something that’s very special. But recently they’ve been kind of butting heads,” said Dr. Roderick Wood, a vet at Paws’ Jupiter clinic. “I just know there’s a lot of tension. Anytime there’s tension with board members you get a little concerned.”
One longtime supporter, Sharon Lainhart, suggested to Gissendanner in an email in May that he and Contessa resign from the Paws board.
“Eve is trying and doing an amazing job of helping animals that otherwise would be suffering without the service she is providing,” said Lainhart. “Yes she has made some mistakes but you can bet she has learned from them and will have all the necessary help moving forward so that it does not happen again.”
Dr. Mark Ruthenberg, a vet at the West Palm clinic, said he has wondered why Gissendanner doesn’t just back off.
“This was a daily grind, 16 hours a day, for this lady. So of course there are issues, there are mistakes,” he said. “And Eve is a dreamer, so sometimes the ideas are not perfect.”
But two former Paws employees offered different views.
“The idea that the board can’t get copies of financial statements or access to financial records is untenable to me. It’s just wrong,” said Kellie Allison, a former Paws bookkeeper who left the organization in May 2016 to focus on other clients and who sides with Gissendanner.
“How can the board properly function if there are not financial disclosures since the audit? It just boggles the mind.”
Dr. Karina Salvo said Van Engel last year offered to hire her as medical director with a salary of $125,000. But 87 days into the job, Salvo said Van Engel fired her for “causing friction in the workplace” after she raised questions about issues such as office logistics that often resulted in four-hour waits for customers.
“It was a very hostile work environment. A lot of the doctors were not happy,” Salvo said.
Salvo’s assessment was confirmed by a current Paws employee who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It’s just not working. Vets quit because they get mad at (Van Engel),” the employee said. “She’s 75 years old and she’s trying to manage this great big place all by herself, which she can’t do.” And, the employee said, Gissendanner “is not some big troublemaker trying to take over. He wants it to be run right.”
Gissendanner said he could petition the court to intervene on the board stalemate, but he doesn’t want to risk destroying Paws.
Meanwhile, Dr. G said he will continue to visit Paws’ two clinics in search of answers. “It’s my clinic as much as it hers,” he said.
And despite the animosity, he still considers Van Engel a friend. “But she’s a hard-headed friend who does what she wants to do,” he added. “I have no animosity toward her. I have animosity toward what she did.”
Van Engel said the controversy has made her consider spending less time running Paws’ daily operations so she can focus on promotions and fund-raising. “We need strong people with deep pockets to expand this,” she said.
As for her friendship with Dr. G, that might be damaged beyond repair.
“He was never a friend. He was an employee and one that I have lost every ounce of respect for now, and this will never be gained back,” she said in an email to The Post.
“The unnecessary pain and suffering he has caused will never go away. He took the glitter and sparkle out of everything we have achieved.”
Staff writer Joel Engelhardt contributed to this story.
Staff writer Joel Engelhardt contributed to this story.