LA GRANDE — The La Grande Police Department is looking into whether the former director of the Blue Mountain Humane Association embezzled funds and committed other criminal acts.
La Grande police detective Ryan Miller said an investigation is underway and the department has partnered with the FBI to look into rumors and accusations against John Brinlee, including for embezzlement and false advertising.
Brinlee resigned from the local animal shelter and humane association in June 2019. Miller could not say what the investigation has turned up because it remains in the early stages, but he said the current board members believe Brinlee could have taken up to $250,000.
The Observer tried numerous times to contact Brinlee without success. Miller said the police have not talked with Brinlee because it is too soon in the investigation.
Minutes from Union County Board of Commissioner meetings and from BMHA board meetings detail a rocky relationship with Brinlee.
Brinlee began his time at the association working at Barkin’ Basement, a secondhand store in La Grande that supports the shelter. He served as chairman of the Blue Mountain Humane Association Board of Directors and assisted with animal control prior to becoming director. By 2014, Brinlee was the director and living at the shelter. He was not receiving financial compensation at the beginning of his time as director, according to a former board member.
During Brinlee’s tenure, the shelter went through multiple changes and difficulties. Bri Troutman, vice president of the association, said the shelter’s finances were a serious problem under Brinlee.
The shelter in 2012 became a high-save shelter, which meant the cost of keeping and taking care of animals increased. The 990 tax forms from 2011 on confirm this growing increase in expenses each year. While the shelter attributed much of the cost increase to the shelter’s change in operations, questions about Brinlee’s handling of money surfaced at Union County commissioner meetings.
The county in 2011 contracted with the association to help pay for services the shelter provides in partnership with animal control. However, there have been periods of time the association did not have a contract with the county. According to meeting minutes from the Oct. 5, 2016, board of commissioners meeting, the contract was reinstated with particular provisions for the BMHA board to meet, including keeping an up-to-date website and better track of finances and having a clear plan of operation.
“The county will require that BMHA has a management plan working with Union County Animal Control and the community,” the Oct. 5 minutes state. “This would include hours of operation and drop-off of dogs by Animal Control after normal business hours. A separate document is needed to address operations.”
This same meeting allowed public comments, and those who spoke voiced frustrations with the shelter. Some community members were upset the shelter would not take sick animals, and others shared their personal experiences, one of which involved the director getting upset with a customer and staff. Jodi Lambert, who manages the Eastern Oregon Pet Lovers Facebook page, shared the story from a message she received:
“BMHA told them to let the cat go because they couldn’t take it, couldn’t afford the vet fee, and they would put it down anyway,” Lambert said, according to meeting minutes. “The cat just had a broken leg. BMHA staff are rude and freak out if you take an animal to them without calling first. The last time she went to BMHA was when she was asked to pick up a black cat that was missing from a trailer park. BMHA told her it was a stray, so she posted it on the Facebook page. Then Leeann at BMHA said someone was missing a black cat and told her to bring them the cat, so she did. John (Brinlee) had a freak out session about her not taking it in. You can’t win with them.”
The county still decided to contract with the shelter under the promise of change and a plan to check back in with Brinlee and the association’s board president, John Rineheart, in a year. The meeting minutes for June 21, 2017, showed the shelter was not holding up its end of the deal with the county, particularly in regard to maintaining the website where the association was to post adoption listings.
At the June 2017 commissioner meeting, the county granted a six-month renewal of the shelter’s contract, but it would be a year before the shelter went before the board of commissioners again. The county renewed the contract without issue, according to meeting minutes from July 25, 2018.
The Blue Mountain Humane Association board at its April 12, 2019, meeting discussed Brinlee’s work with the shelter. Board members brought up concerns about missing money and improper use of funding. According to the meeting minutes, the director was accessing shelter funds without board approval and not providing any documentation about where the money was being spent.
There also was an issue regarding a 2012 raffle for an all-terrain vehicle that AC Powersports, La Grande, donated to the shelter to raise money. The board received complaints from people who purchased raffle tickets but never heard back regarding who won the ATV, and there was a rumor that Brinlee’s then-girlfriend, LeAnna Muse, purchased and registered an ATV.
Miller said the police are looking into the allegation. However, AC Powersports employee Cody Richelderfer said the store has no record of a sale of an ATV to Muse or to the Blue Mountain Humane Association at that time.
Former board member Cheryl Borum said the board gave Brinlee $11,000 to purchase new kennel doors but never saw the correct number of doors purchased or installed. Borum said before Brinlee came on as director the shelter had few financial struggles outside of the recession. However, some changes in the financial situation can be attributed to becoming a low-kill shelter, according to BMHA’s comments during the commissioner meetings through the years.
A former board member said the shelter did not compensate Brinlee for his work as director, and he lived at the shelter rent free. The board member spoke on the condition of anonymity to allow for open discussion about the issues with Brinlee. This was the only way to obtain an interview and is not a typical practice of The Observer.
“For a long time (Brinlee) had volunteered to waive his salary because he knew the rescue was not going to bring in a lot of money. He worked for years without compensation,” the former board member said. “During that time John wasn’t drawing a salary and there was a fear he would come for backpay. So he started drawing and looked at other amounts directors made, and drew that much. That is why we wanted to put him on contract.”
Brinlee had no contract stating his duties and responsibilities and no outline for compensation, according to BMHA meeting minutes. The board approved a contract but Brinlee resigned before signing it.
Once Brinlee left, the board of directors at the time also departed, leaving the shelter to pick up the pieces and reform the board. The organization has filled six board seats, and Troutman said the members are working to bring the shelter into a better place in the community.