Iowa Attorney General sues two animal rescue groups for fraud

Photo by John via Flickr

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has filed a lawsuit to shut down two nonprofits claiming to be dog rescue groups that he says have engaged in fraud. Miller claims Hobo K9 Rescue in the north central Iowa town of Britt, and Rescue Pets Iowa of Ottumwa, are part of a national “puppy laundering” ring.

“Puppy laundering is the practice of using non-profit rescue groups to obscure the source of dogs, deceive consumers and circumvent ‘puppy mill’ bans,” the AG’s office explained in a statement on Friday. “California and Chicago, for example, have banned the commercial sale of some pets obtained from sources other than animal control shelters or rescue groups.”

Hobo K9 Rescue claimed to be re-housing rescues, but instead it sold at least 1,290 puppies, acquired from for-profit sources, to eight different brokers in California, Illinois, Florida and New Jersey, between Sept. 2016 and July 2018, according to the lawsuit filed in Polk County District Court on Friday. The lawsuit alleges Hobo K9 made $714,510 from those sales.

The AG’s office said that after it opened an investigation in Hobo K9, the people behind it set up a “brand-new sham charity,” Rescue Pets Iowa. Earlier this month, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued Rescue Pets Iowa, alleging the Ottumwa group was involved in a puppy laundering operation in which it sold puppies fraudulently labelled as “rescues” to California brokers.

The lawsuit by the AG’s office not only seeks to shut down the two nonprofits, it also alleges a for-profit breeding business, J.A.K.’s Puppies of Britt, committed consumer fraud as part of the puppy laundering scheme. Four individuals are also named as part of the scheme: Jolyn Noethe and Kimberly Dolphin of Britt; Megan Peterson of Wesley; and Russell Kirk of Ottumwa.

The state is seeking to recover all money made by the defendants as part of the scheme, and asks the court to impose a fine on each of them of up to $40,000 for each fraudulent act.

Iowa is notorious among animal welfare activists as one of leading puppy mill states in the U.S. Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Humane Society of America determined Iowa had 10 puppy mills in 2018. Only Missouri and Ohio had more.

Miller filed his lawsuit one day after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed Iowa’s new “ag gag” bill into law. A federal district court judge struck down a previous version of that law in January.

“The law has the effect of criminalizing undercover investigations of certain agricultural facilities [such as industrial livestock farms] and those of interest to the general public, such as puppy mills,” Judge James Gritzner wrote in his decision.

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