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Did Villaraigosa hire Ed Boks to run Animal Services without checking his background?

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Did Villaraigosa hire Ed Boks to run Animal Services without checking his background?


t first, they were so quiet you could hear a pin drop. One might have even interpreted the silence to mean the humane community was taking in stride the appointment of Ed Boks as the new general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS).

Unlike his predecessor, Guerdon Stuckey – who was fired by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in December – Boks came to town with a great résumé: In five years as director of Maricopa County Animal Care and Control (1998-2003) in Arizona and two years at New York City Animal Care and Control (2004-2006), Boks had reportedly made impressive progress in those communities’ stated “no-kill” goals.

So maybe it surprised a few folks when Michael Bell of Citizens for a Humane Los Angeles stood at Boks’s Public Safety Commission confirmation on February 6 and expressed “concerns” that the new GM’s previous adoption-vs.-euthanasia statistics were less remarkable than this community had expected.

This is not to say that Boks is unpopular. At a recent meet-and-greet sponsored by In Defense of Animals, the room was packed. But a growing number of activists are now expressing their dismay that his numbers “are worse than Stuckey’s.”

In his one year on the job, Stuckey impounded 57,930 animals and euthanized 24,932. In Maricopa during the last year Boks was director (2003), roughly 57,000 animals were impounded and 27,000 were euthanized. During Boks’s last year in NYCACC, 41,623 were impounded and 20,849 were euthanized.

“The mayor promised we’d have input on the selection of Stuckey’s replacement,” Bell says. “We did not. None of us has been consulted about the [LAAS] assistant general manager, either.”

Meet the New Boss
Rumors about the hiring process – first highlighted in the December L.A. Weekly article “A Billionaire’s Bark” – continue to dog the administration. In the piece, L.A. surgeon-inventor Dr. Gary Michelson is given much of the credit for spearheading the Boks appointment. The piece states that Michelson had introduced Boks to Villaraigosa while simultaneously promising to commit $10 million of his substantial wealth to spay/neuter services.

Michelson strongly insists it was the other way around: Boks introduced him to the mayor. He admits he met with boisterous protest group Animal Defense League Los Angeles (ADL-LA), listened to their issues about why Boks should hire a local candidate for the still-unfilled assistant GM position, and took this to City Hall. He was told that Boks could hire anyone he chooses.

But then there are suggestions that the mayor struck a bargain with ADL-LA, obtaining its silence in exchange for a promise to appoint someone from the humane community to be assistant general manager. ADL-LA’s Pamelyn Ferdin said, “ADL-LA was promised by the mayor, via Gary Michelson, that a choice by the local humane community of Los Angeles, but not ADL-LA in particular, would be placed in the position of assistant general manager. We agreed to remain silent and to call off two planned protests … during the Christmas holidays. We believed that this would be the best chance to save our animals, considering the mayor and Gary Michelson had chosen Ed Boks in secret, without any input from the local Los Angeles humane community.”

Though five local candidates expressed interest in the job, Deputy Chief of Staff Jimmy Blackman insists Villaraigosa never made the deal. “The mayor was looking for someone with experience and a demonstrated track record of success in running animal welfare departments of a size comparable to L.A. To the best of our knowledge, there is no one in L.A. who fits that description, and hiring someone from here just to placate certain elements of the humane community was not on the mayor’s agenda.”

On February 10, ADL-LA e-mailed an action alert that quoted an unnamed source who alleged that Boks left Maricopa AC&C with about a half-million dollars in debt. “When Boks left Maricopa, dogs were being walked with ropes instead of leashes because they had no money.”

The Maricopa AC&C financial situation is revealed in an Internal Audit Report online at the County’s website. In 2003, the department was over-budget and inventory and cash controls were “weak.” Medical and office supplies exceeded budget by $350,000. Data for field enforcement satisfaction, spay-neuter surgeries and “percent of animals humanely sheltered” was not certified. “Without accurate … performance data, the department cannot determine if objectives have been met,” the audit emphasizes. There were identified problems in overstated revenues, duplicate accounts, and receivers were not available for review for some of the medical supply transactions.

“AC&C started many new public programs not funded in the budget,” Boks communicated via e-mail. “These programs were funded by donations … . The controller at that time paid for the public program expenditures out of the operations budget, rather than the appropriate donation fund. Of course, this caused the department to appear to be over budget. But all that was needed to correct the situation was to transfer the funds … . The fact that this took an audit to discover shows how weak many of the department’s controls were.”

In fact, the audit suggests the opposite – the controller wasn’t in charge – and recommends that AC&C should “ensure that all bills are sent to the controller’s office.”

Boks claims he’s never seen the audit, though he insists he ordered it, and the one now underway in NYC. “I wouldn’t have asked for [it] if I wasn’t concerned. In New York, same thing … . This is a department that is deliberately under-funded and we’re trying to bring to the attention of the decision makers that more money is needed.”

Yvette Jackson, a spokesperson for New York City Comptroller William Thompson, refuses to confirm this. “Generally, it is not our practice to take audit requests unless there are extenuating circumstances,” Jackson says.

CityBeat’s calls to Maricopa auditor Eve Murillo were not returned. But Julie Bank worked at AC&C during that time. When Boks left, she became interim director and is now deputy director. “I don’t know what Mr. Boks did when he was in our building – back then I wasn’t privy to his decision-making,” Bank insists. “But we regularly get audited, and it’s not like we call and ask.”

A Bad Case of Distemper
One big question that surfaced from the Maricopa audit is over $180,000 paid to MWI Veterinary Supply in 2003 for an “experimental distemper treatment.” Authorized by then-Clinic Director Mary Martin, it was a significant bump from the $15,000 spent on distemper in 2002. (Martin followed Boks from Maricopa to New York, and is now NYCACC’s interim director.)

Boks admits he spent that whopping sum on “meds” associated with a distemper experiment, which he claims was sponsored by Sonora Veterinary Specialists in Scottsdale, Arizona. Moreover, he says that the treatment worked. “These animals were dying,” he declares, “We took them to the vet [Sonora] to be treated … . It was endemic; we were losing 20 or 30 animals a week … . We did find a treatment … and we saved an awful lot of animals working with this treatment.”

This would come as shocking news to a great many who work with canine distemper across the country. There is no known cure. “An animal can survive it, but it can’t be cured,” informs L.A. veterinarian Dr. Bob Goldman.

Distemper is contagious, but it has pretty much been controlled in modern times by an inexpensive vaccine. Twenty or 30 confirmed cases per week would be considered an epidemic that would show up someplace – in headlines, at the county health department, or both. When Chicago found 120 cases in 2004 it was national news; a task force was deployed (to locate the source of the infection), workers washed their shoes in bleach, and the shelter closed adoptions for a month.

Goldman wonders why this wasn’t done. “In December 2004, we had an outbreak in Downey,” recalls Goldman, who was president of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association that year. “We notified Public Health, who called the press, and we sent bulletins everywhere. That [Boks] didn’t do that … it’s just truly strange.”

According to former Maricopa County Director of Public Health Dr. Jonathan Weisbuch (Boks’s former supervisor), there was no epidemic, not even like Chicago’s. “I would have known and we would have done something about it.”

And then there’s the “cure” itself. Developed by Lancaster vet Dr. Alson Sears, it’s an unproven serum that’s been around for three decades without much data to support it. The serum is made by extracting blood from a healthy mixed-breed dog, then sterilizing and injecting it into the infected animal. Sears claims it works – if it does at all – in the first one to four days of exposure, when it’s also tough to make a valid diagnosis of distemper. Hence, most scientists view any claims of success as “anecdotal.”

“I take anything anecdotal with a grain of salt,” says Kate Hurley, director of shelter medicine at U.C. Davis. “There is no treatment for distemper. The good news is that the vaccine is excellent. It’s an easy disease to prevent.”

“It’s a quack cure,” Goldman states firmly. “At least interferon for feline leukemia, which doesn’t really work, was documented in trials.”

The Board of Supervisors never approved the program and Bank reports, “There were no records kept. We couldn’t evaluate if it was successful. That data wasn’t captured.”

According to the spokesperson for Sonora Veterinary Specialists, the clinic is involved in an academic study of the Sears serum with a group in California – “We’ve had only about 35 cases in the past two years” – but they want this to be perfectly clear: Sonora didn’t work with Boks on his distemper experiments and do not want the clinic’s name used alongside any claims that he successfully treated the disease. Hospital Director Ed Rizzo is adamant: “We can’t comment on Maricopa. They did that study on their own. Jen Gilson [Sonora’s program director] put them in touch with the Sears protocol people in California and that was it. We weren’t part of treating or curing 20 to 30 cases of distemper a week. The Sears serum costs nothing to make; we don’t sell it, and we’re not claiming we have a cure. Period.”

A number of doctors and advocates question the $180,000 expenditure.

“When I think of a shelter with $180,000 to spend, I can only think of how many animals could be spayed and neutered with that money,” says former L.A. shelter vet, Dr. Laura Cochran.

ADL-LA’s Ferdin argues Boks’ shelter wasn’t a vet college. “Who is Boks to be spending limited shelter funds to find a cure for distemper, when there are more credible, experienced people who work on this complex, albeit rare, issue?”

“If he cured distemper, he wouldn’t be taking this job today,” Goldman reasons. “He’d be a millionaire and he’d be on Oprah.”

Bank doesn’t dispute the ADL-LA e-mail alleging Boks left the department – and the animals – in debt. “It was a challenging time and we came through it superbly,” she says proudly. “When [Ed] left, the team really got together and fixed what needed to be fixed. We won a Fiscal Fitness award in 2004, and since October haven’t euthanized even one healthy adoptable pet.”

To Bell, it’s another sign that the mayor should have involved the humane community. “I want to give Ed the benefit of the doubt, but this information – if valid – is very troubling. It’s just one more indication that the mayor’s office – in their haste to extradite themselves from the Stuckey dilemma – didn’t do the diligent research we expected.”

But Blackman insists the search was as stringent as the “process that was conducted to select Lydia Kennard as the head of Los Angeles World Airports,” and that the mayor’s office “reviewed stats in both areas and compared them with L.A. over the same periods. Our perception was that Boks’ results showed steady progress … in Arizona and New York. During his time in both positions, adoptions went up and euthanasia went down each year.”

Regardless, pressure from the humane community about how candidates are screened for top LAAS jobs isn’t likely to disappear. According to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 347 President Julie Butcher, who represents LAAS workers, the union also expects transparency. “[SEIU] continues to advocate the broadest and most open, fair process for hiring,” says Butcher. “Anything else is a de facto slap in the face to every worker within the organization; in the absence of an equitable promotional scheme, these decisions become – or appear to become – ones based on back-scratching, name-dropping, and glad-handing – and lord knows there’s already way too much of that in local government.”


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