Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Pearce convicted of violating state charities law

Former operator of the Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery ordered to serve 14 days in jail, pay $116,000 in restitution

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Dianne D. Pearce, president of the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary and former operator of the Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery in Montgomery County, was convicted Aug. 14 in Worcester County Circuit Court of violating the state’s charitable organization law, the office of Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler reported last week.

Judge Thomas Groton III sentenced Pearce to one year in jail, with all but 14 days suspended, and five years of supervised probation. She was also ordered to pay $116,000 in restitution to the state’s Nontidal Wetland Compensation Fund, according to a news release issued by Gansler’s office.

The Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary last October was charged in Worcester County with fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary and grossly negligent failure to maintain records required to report activities of a charitable organization from Jan. 15, 1999, through April 15, 2006.

The state did not prosecute her on the misappropriation charge and Pearce pled guilty to the record-keeping charges, Esther ‘‘Anne” Benaroya, Pearce’s Rockville attorney, said last week. She offered no further comment.

In early spring, Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary and Pearce lost control of the Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery in Aspen Hill after a long battle in Circuit Court over control of the facility.

Circuit Court Judge DeLawrence Beard ordered that Pearce and her organization were responsible for $160,000 in compensatory damages and $70,000 in punitive damages, and that the land be transferred to the Montgomery County Humane Society Inc.

Area residents have long accused Pearce of failing to maintain the property and not living up to promises to respectfully care for the animals buried there.

In the Worcester County case, Pearce failed to build vegetated, nontidal wetlands there, for which Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary received land and $150,000 in 1999, according to court charging documents filed in Worcester County.

Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary had agreed to build the wetlands within a year of taking title to the 88-acre property in 2000, according to the court documents.

Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary entered into a written agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment, the plaintiff in the case, on Oct. 15, 1998. The wildlife organization agreed to accept a transfer of 88 acres of property and $150,000 from Perdue Farms Inc. in order to construct wetlands on the Worcester County property, according to the court documents.

Perdue conveyed the land as part of a settlement agreement in May 1997 following a claim filed by the Maryland Department of the Environment against Perdue for water pollution violations, according to court documents.

The agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment says Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary was required to commence construction of the wetlands within one year of taking title to the property, which the charging documents say was on or about Jan. 11, 2000.

The press release from Gansler’s office reports that it was discovered that Pearce ‘‘had spent or transferred the entire $150,000 out of the sanctuary’s land trust bank account.”

The Attorney General’s Office asked that several special conditions of probation also be imposed on Pearce, including requiring her to deed the property to a reputable entity able to complete the wetland restoration project, as well as prohibiting Pearce from serving on the governing board of any charitable organization during the term of her probation, Gansler’s office reported.

As a result, Gansler’s office reported that the Maryland Coastal Bays Program has agreed to step in and complete the wetland project.