BEND, Ore. - (Update: Comments from board president, attorney for founders)
The clock is ticking for the new board of the Equine Outreach horse sanctuary in Bend to find a home for 67 horses by the end of the year, when the nonprofit organization will dissolve.
The new board president, Bill Inman told NewsChannel 21, on Thursday part of the conversations with the Oregon Department of Justice involved trying to figure out how to separate from the founders and in a way that the state was comfortable with.
More than a year after the entire board of Equine Outreach Inc. resigned in a dispute with the nonprofit’s founders, the organization’s new board said late Wednesday it is shutting the operation down and seeking donations to help care for its 67 abused or neglected horses — and hopefully an “angel” to provide a new home, or buy the current one.
In a statement, the board noted that despite the continued efforts of volunteers to care for the horses, the group that has for years helped abused and neglected horses is “struggling financially” due to a lengthy state Department of Justice investigation of the nonprofit’s record keeping and, it determined, lax financial controls.
In a three-page letter to attorneys for the organization and founders Joan Steelhammer and her husband, Gary Everett, Senior Assistant Attorney General Heather Weigler said the 13-year-old organization is located on property owned by Everett’s business, Ric-O-Chet LLC, and leased by Equine Outreach on a month-to-month basis.
In October 2016, NewsChannel 21 first reported that all six former board members resigned, citing "irreconcilable differences" with the founders.
After the story aired, the DOJ’s Charitable Activities Section issued an order seeking documents and records, some of which were provided after several time extensions, Weigler noted. The couple’s lawyer provided more documents in September “and acknowledged that EOI’s record keeping had been lacking,” she wrote.
Although the founders recruited new board members and resigned from Equine Outreach, the DOJ investigator said the new board and Everett’s company have been unable to negotiate a new lease, and the board voted to dissolve the organization on Oct. 17. Weigler said the board is assessing assets and liabilities and seeking to re-home as many horses as possible.
As a result of the shutdown, the DOJ is closing its investigation, she said, but not without noting that its “investigation revealed significant failures with respect to corporate recordkeeping.”
Weigler also said the DOJ was not aware of any plans by Steelhammer or Everett to be involved in any other horse rescue but, should they do so, “we strongly encourage them to consult with legal counsel and obtain other training to ensure they understand and are able to comply with their legal responsibilities.”
“EOI has provided needed services to Central Oregon, and it is regrettable that the new board will not be given the opportunity to provide those services,” Weigler said , adding that the DOJ urges the founders to cooperate fully with the board’s efforts to wind up EOI’s corporate affairs.”
But it’s clear the organization is not abandoning hope of reviving the horse rescue effort in some fashion.
Greg Lynch, an attorney representing Steelhammer and Everett, said his clients did nothing wrong and used their own money to care for the horses.
"I think the closing letter was unduly harsh," Lynch said Thursday. "And while I concede that their record keeping was inadequate and certainly could have been much better, there is nothing to suggest, let alone to confirm ,that they did anything wrong, other than they were negligent in their record keeping."aid.
Inman said, "The DOJ recently agreed that they would end their investigation as a result of the board's difficult decision to close" the horse rescue.
"However, we are committed to a responsible shutdown, and today we are asking the community for help finding homes for as many horses as possible before winter sets in," he said.
Equine Outreach said in its statement it “needs an immediate influx of donations to cover the expense of caring for 60-plus horses and transport of horses to new homes during the shutdown period,” through the end of the year.
“Our hope is that an ‘angel’ steps forward to purchase the ranch or another property, allowing the nonprofit to continue serving the needs of this community by providing care and adoption services for abused and neglected horses,” it said.
The organization also said Steelhammer and Everett have offered to continue to care for any horses that remain on the property after Dec. 31, and will work to adopt them out privately.
“The board and founders are working together on a dissolution agreement (per DOJ request) and transfer of assets and liabilities in a manner that will ensure public transparency and compliance with DOJ guidelines,” the announcement said.
Inman also stated the organization is leasing the property on a month-to-month basis. The $4,000 monthly payment goes to an entity controlled by Everett.
Inman said the horse sanctuary is behind $16,000 in rent.
Inman also sought to reassure both volunteers and potential donors, “Over the past year, we have implemented new systems and detailed financial procedures that comply with nonprofit rules and regulations. We hope this will give piece of mind to those interested in offering donations at this time.”
“With the right angel or angels, we could continue and truly turn Equine Outreach into a model for horse rescue and community engagement,” Inman added. “We already have great volunteers and longtime support from this community.”
Donations are being sought via PayPal at www.equineoutreach.com, the nonprofit said, adding that “a charitable receipt will be given to all who donate.