Tempers flare at animal clinic in power struggle after founder’s death

The armed police officer standing guard in the lobby of Paws 2 Help’s animal clinic Monday wasn’t there to control unruly dogs and cats.

He was there to keep the peace among the loudest barkers in the room — a group wrestling for control of the popular nonprofit clinic just eight days after the death of its founder. The clash that ensued was just the latest in a lingering power struggle that’s threatening the future of a clinic used by thousands of low-income pet owners.

Eve Van Engel, the feisty British-born animal lover who over two decades built Paws into a nearly $4 million-a-year charitable business, died Nov. 5 at age 76. Since she also sat on the clinic’s four-member board, her death potentially ends an ongoing struggle between two warring factions hopelessly deadlocked for more than a year.

When two anti-Eve board members learned about her death, they wasted no time preparing for what they considered a long overdue shakeup.

The board members — Elton Gissendanner, a retired veterinarian who played a role decades ago in the clinic’s growth, and local accountant Mary Contessa — scheduled a meeting for Nov. 10 at the crowded Forest Hill Boulevard headquarters to discuss changes and review financial records, which they said Van Engel had refused to let them do in the final two years of her life.

But they postponed that morning after Van Engel’s family and angry Paws staff complained it was insensitive and disrespectful to take any action before her memorial service on Saturday.

They showed up Monday, instead, the same day Van Engel’s body was cremated.

And they brought protection — an off-duty Palm Springs police officer, hired for $45 an hour, Contessa said, because she feared a confrontation with Van Engel’s son. Lee Van Engel said he warned Contessa last week to beware of possible confrontations from angry and resentful employees.

What followed was roughly an hour of awkward and at times tense dialogue, some of it in front of staff and customers waiting with pets.

No punches were thrown, but the cop intervened twice when the 90-year-old Gissendanner started to lose his temper.

“Just calm down,” officer Matthew Hoewing said after the retired vet raised his voice when Van Engel’s son, Lee, walked away from him inside a cramped office in the back of the lobby.

Dr. G reined in

Lee Van Engel, who flew to West Palm Beach from his native London, blames Gissendanner and Contessa for causing stress that he says contributed to his mother’s death. But he never raised his voice during the meeting, which was attended by a Palm Beach Post reporter, and he tried for the most part to avoid confrontations with Gissendanner, who at times had to be reined in by Contessa.

“I’m telling the truth,” Gissendanner growled as Lee Van Engel walked out the door, interrupting the retiree’s meandering monologue about his history with Paws and Lee’s mother.

“The point is,” Lee had said a few minutes earlier, “I’m getting bored listening to your story.”

Known as “Dr. G” by some colleagues, Gissendanner had similar quarrels with Lee’s mother earlier this year. In unannounced visits to Paws clinics in West Palm Beach and Jupiter, he confronted her in the lobby and warned employees to find new jobs after the IRS found problems with Paws’ records.

The IRS fined Eve Van Engel $3,100 for using a Paws debit card in 2014 to pay for $12,000 in dental work and some personal meals. Van Engel, who took little or no salary during her two decades overseeing Paws, said she had paid the money back, which Contessa, the board’s treasurer, says isn’t true.

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 given to three Paws veterinarians and the wife of one of the vets.

To satisfy the IRS, the vets bought the titles and leases on the cars. But Van Engel continued living in the house until she died in it from what friends say was a heart attack.

In an interview with The Post earlier this year, Eve Van Engel conceded she had made some mistakes. But she accused Gissendanner, who lives in Lake Placid, a town two hours from West Palm Beach, of trying take over Paws because he was jealous over how she had built it into a popular clinic with two locations and nearly $4 million a year in revenue.

She also was quick to point out Dr. G’s criminal past: 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.

Dr. G. routinely referred to Eve as an illegal alien, telling her he had written to President Trump asking that she be deported. “And you,” he said Monday to her son, “are a guest in this country.”

Director stays away

The rift hasn’t affected Paws’ daily business. But it has paralyzed the board from making any decisions since the split: Van Engel and her longtime friend, Paws director Sigrid Kumpe, against Contessa and Dr. G.

Kumpe was nowhere to be found Monday when Gissendanner and Contessa arrived at the clinic just before noon. But she asked Arthur Benjamin, a longtime Paws donor and Van Engel supporter, to represent her that day at Paws.

“You understand that Eve died eight days ago. People are in mourning. This is the wrong week to meet here,” Benjamin said to the two board members.

Contessa replied, “Last week was the wrong week. This is the right week to go forward. (Otherwise) it’s going to be week after week after week.”

Benjamin tried to share details of two recent developments that he said could help Paws continue operating without a hitch.

Sharon Lainhart, another longtime Paws donor and Van Engel supporter, has offered to serve as an interim board member. And Tri-County Animal Rescue, based in Boca Raton, has expressed interest in taking over Paws and possibly renaming it in Eve’s honor.

But Contessa and Dr. G said they weren’t ready to consider any of that. They said their immediate plans are to make sure Paws’ finances are in order.

“We need to get all the books and records updated, then we will entertain all kinds of things about what to do,” said, Contessa, who also said the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which issues annual licenses to charitable organizations, is still reviewing Paws’ records.

Gissendanner and Contessa then tried to initiate a vote to remove Kumpe from the board but postponed the attempt after Benjamin questioned whether they could do so with just two members present. A copy of the board’s bylaws showed that three members must be present to hold a meeting.

They also questioned Benjamin’s authority to represent Kumpe. Benjamin produced a notarized statement from Kumpe giving him control of operations while she was away for the day.

Gissendanner at times pointed a finger at Benjamin and accused him of trying to take over the meeting. He also mentioned his age at least twice as he grew agitated during the meeting and mistakenly referred to Lee as Eve’s “father” and to Kumpe as “Eve.”

The board members will try to meet again. But Benjamin offered a warning that Paws’ employees could walk out if Gissendanner takes control of the clinic.

“Mary and I will do nothing to destroy Paws 2 Help,” Gissendanner said. “If the employees want to do it, I don’t think — when they find out the truth — they will.”

If the dispute results in Paws 2 Help closing down for good, “it certainly would be detrimental to folks who are low-income,” Dianne Sauve, director of Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control, told The Post.

One last exchange

As Gissendanner prepared to leave Paws’ lobby Monday, Lee Van Engel took a parting shot.

“I am considering a lawsuit against you and Mary for harassment of my mother,” Lee said as a second police officer arrived.

“It is something in your imagination, sir,” Gissendanner replied, talking over Lee Van Engel.

“You have harassed her and harassed her and harassed her,” Lee continued. “This is why Sigrid doesn’t want to speak to you. She is frightened. You are harassing her and she thinks she will be the next one in the grave because of the harassment you are causing her.”

Gissendanner dropped his head and laughed, prompting another admonishment from Lee Van Engel: “You think it’s funny? My mother is dead.”

A few feet away, a client with a puppy on his lap looked up in the direction of the raised voices, and a police officer intervened.

“We are in the lobby,” Hoewing said before turning to Gissendanner. “You’ve said your piece. Let’s just end it right now.”

And it would have ended right there, but Dr. G approached Van Engel again, warning him against filing a frivolous suit.

“You’d better be careful,” he said, and he took a few steps toward the exit then turned back and continued, “That’s not a physical threat. …”

Lee wasn’t in the mood to listen anymore.

“Please stop talking to me,” he said. “You’ve spoken too much.”

Nearly 150 people packed Eve Van Engel’s memorial service Saturday at Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach. Gissendanner and Contessa did not attend.

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