‘Held hostage’: Committee member says she’s not comfortable with K9s For Warriors being on 2022 bond

Florida-based nonprofit acknowledges 3-4 year waitlist for veterans to be paired with service dogs

‘Held hostage’: Committee member says she’s not comfortable with K9s For Warriors being on 2022 bond

SAN ANTONIO – A local realtor on San Antonio’s facilities bond committee said there was no justification to include money for a questionable K9 nonprofit in the city’s latest bond package.

Last year, Kerri Neff represented San Antonio City Council District 7 on the bond committee. Her work included attending four arduous meetings before she was part of the group that approved the final list of projects to be included in Measure E in the ongoing $1.2 billion city bond election. On that list was money for a new police substation, two replacement fire stations and the physical expansion here of K9s For Warriors, a Florida-based nonprofit that has leased city land adjacent to Animal Care Services since early 2019.

READ PART 1: Why a proposed expansion of a veteran service dog program is drawing scrutiny ahead of San Antonio bond election

The first building on the property, the 5,000 square foot Petco Love K9 Center, opened last fall and features 30 dog kennels.

The proposed $4.5 million expansion of the property would use $2.25 million set aside in the 2022 public safety facilities bond, which would then be matched by the charity using grants and private funds, and would more than double the number of kennels on site.

Neff, who described K9s For Warriors as having an “abysmal track record” in San Antonio, said she ultimately agreed to include the project in the facilities bond out of fear that larger public safety projects would be impacted if the committee continued to squabble over the smaller service dog program expansion.

Neff told the KSAT 12 Defenders she is not comfortable with the proposed K9s For Warriors expansion being among the 183 projects included in the bond program.

“We are basically, for a lack of better terms, being held hostage to get some of our very much-needed facilities passed and funded,” said Neff. “I can’t, I can’t justify it. There’s nothing about this project that justifies my (property) tax dollars going towards it.”

Early voting on the six bond measures started Monday and runs through May 3. Election day is Saturday, May 7.

‘Pet project’

“It feels like a bitter pill, and I feel like this pet project getting snuck in there is a disservice to taxpayers and it further erodes the public trust of the inner workings of how this works, right,” said Neff.

In December, after Neff requested specific data on how many dogs from ACS had been taken into K9s For Warriors, city officials told her and other committee members that 60 dogs had been pulled from ACS from 2019 through last November. The charity did not provide figures to the committee on how many of the animals were later deemed suitable for the program.

However, months earlier, in October, city officials were told by K9s For Warriors that over 100 shelter dogs had been rescued in partnership with ACS up to that point, records show.

“That is my concern, and that should be everybody’s concern, because if we talk about accountability and these numbers changing now, and then we give them ‘x’ amount of money, five years from now how do we go back and see what they’ve done?” asked Neff.

Neff described the bond process as the city’s chance every five years to refinance and identify ways to improve the lives of San Antonio residents.

“In my questioning, they could not commit to only serving San Antonio veterans, and I take issue with that,” said Neff.

Since 2019, K9s For Warriors has graduated or accepted into the program only 10 San Antonio veterans, according to figures provided to the Defenders earlier this month. Backers of the nonprofit, however, point out that only three vets from here were part of the program before it had a physical presence in San Antonio.

District 8 City Councilman Manny Pelaez, who spearheaded efforts to bring the group to San Antonio several years ago, said funding for nonprofits has been included in bond packages for decades.

During a virtual interview with KSAT earlier this month, Pelaez said the passage of Proposition A by San Antonio voters last year gave the city more flexibility in how it can spend approved bond funds.

“And I’ve yet to hear people say that this is not within the lawful purpose. In fact, it was vetted by our attorneys and it was vetted by a committee of citizens, not just me,” said Pelaez, whose friendship with K9s For Warriors CEO Rory Diamond goes back a half-decade, when both were part of the 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholars program.

Pelaez further defended the possible expansion by stating that the project consists of a brick and mortar building on city property.

“And so really what we’re asking the voters to do is to invest in city property for the purpose of reducing euthanization of animals,” said Pelaez.

Yearslong wait for veterans

In September 2019, during Suicide Prevention Week, K9s For Warriors made a plea for donations using the story of an Air Force veteran who said he was hours away from taking his own life.

“I was only 6 hours away from placing a pistol in my mouth and pulling the trigger...” the top of the written testimonial reads.

K9s For Warriors used a testimonial for fundraising in 2019 from an Air Force veteran who said he was hours away from taking his own life. (KSAT)

The veteran credited his K9s For Warriors service dog, Molly, with reducing his fear and night terrors.

K9s For Warriors officials concede, however, that there is currently a three to four year waitlist for veterans who apply to the program to actually get paired with a dog.

“If you don’t need a service dog and it’s just going to be a show, then you can wait four years to get a dog. If you’re worried about the suicide problem across the country, knowing that there’s at least 22 a day, well you don’t have time. You’re going to be dead,” said Bart Sherwood, founder and executive director of the San Antonio-based service dog program Train a Dog Save a Warrior.

Sherwood’s organization, which utilizes the approach of having a veteran begin training with his or her dog early on, does not have a waitlist and is usually able to begin the veteran-service dog training process within a month of the vet completing an application.

Train a Dog Save a Warrior founder and executive director Bart Sherwood. (KSAT)

Sherwood said there are occasionally weekslong delays to the start of training only if the organization must find a suitable dog for the veteran from an area shelter or foster home.

He said a properly trained service dog can recognize the onset of a possible panic attack within the veteran they are assigned to in one to three minutes.

“It’s an outlier to have the veterans train the dogs themselves. That’s an unusual circumstance,” said Diamond, who defended his group’s practice of introducing the veteran to his or her service dog later in the training process.

As recently as September, K9s For Warriors officials said dogs rescued in San Antonio received only initial veterinary care and preliminary training here before being moved to the agency’s headquarters in Florida.

Diamond, however, said during a recent virtual interview with the Defenders that the organization has shifted to now keeping the dogs in San Antonio to train for up to eight months.

While Pelaez claimed K9s For Warriors has hit its marks and exceeded expectations in San Antonio, Diamond acknowledged that the build-up to a consistent dog rescue-training program has been slow.

“We knew it would take us a little while to get up to speed to build a facility. I mean, we literally just cut the ribbon on the facility last September. Two years ago we only had one employee (in San Antonio),” said Diamond.

K9s For Warriors’ lease with the city calls for it to make good-faith efforts to pull a minimum of 200 dogs from ACS a year, a benchmark it has yet to reach in San Antonio.

“We’ll get to 200 soon, especially when we double the size of the entire campus. It’ll become very achievable and we look forward to doing it,” said Diamond.

K9s For Warriors Research Institute dissolves

In late March, an alt-weekly newspaper in Jacksonville, Florida, where Diamond serves as a city councilman, heaped criticism on the K9s For Warriors program and its related organizations and accused Diamond of embellishing his work history.

Diamond pointed out that the author of the article is a candidate for state representative in Florida, but was unsure why she chose to write about him and K9s For Warriors.

“It is absolutely inaccurate. It’s very disappointing that as an elected official, people can say whatever they want. It’s very ugly out there,” said Diamond.

K9s For Warriors officials have requested that corrections be made to the article, but as of April 15 had not heard back from the paper’s publisher, a program spokesman said.

According to 2020 tax records, the last year public files for the organization are available, Diamond’s total compensation from K9s For Warriors and its related research institute was $283,509. This figure included base salaries from both entities, $60,000 in bonus and incentive pay from K9s For Warriors and retirement and deferred compensation from both entities.

“I actually don’t have any input on my salary. Our board sets it. I’ve never once had any input,” said Diamond, who added that his compensation was set after a survey was conducted on other national organizations similar in size.

K9s For Warriors CEO Rory Diamond. (KSAT)

He said he is paid slightly less than the average CEO of a similar-sized organization.

While K9s For Warriors has refuted much of the newspaper article, officials have conceded that its K9s For Warriors Research Institute was dissolved last month. It was founded in 2016.

“The purpose of the institute was to essentially be a separate entity focusing on our research,” said Diamond.

Agency officials have stated the institute financially backed important research in the field of service dogs. Seven studies have been published and an eighth is currently in the process of being finalized, a spokesman said.

Tax records show the institute had a negative asset/fund balance year after year, including a deficit of $1,539,972 in 2020.

While K9s For Warriors has received sterling charitable scores from Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau and Guidestar, K9s For Warriors Research Institute received a failing score from Charity Navigator, citing expenses that greatly exceed revenue and that 100% of the institute’s expenses in 2020 went to administrative costs.

“Charity Navigator has the numbers wrong,” said Diamond, who denied that the institute was dissolved because of the failing score. He said the watchdog group failed to account for $742,000 in fundraising for research later spent at Purdue University.

KSAT has been unable to speak with officials from Charity Navigator about Diamond’s claim. The group as of Monday had taken down its posted score for K9s For Warriors Research Institute and its website states the nonprofit is not currently scored.

Diamond said K9s For Warriors had hoped to have a full-fledged research institute that included input from other service dog groups, but interest never fully developed.

Diamond said it made more sense to bring the institute’s responsibilities in-house since K9s For Warriors was paying all bills associated with it.

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About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.