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I-Team: Dogs and Dollars

In 2019, the I-Team uncovered documents that showed the president of the Humane Society of the Desert was reimbursed tens of thousands of dollars after making charges to credit cards issued to the nonprofit.

Including luxury hotel stays, meals at local restaurants, a Louis Vuitton purse and even cosmetic surgery.

Malinda Bustos was suspended and a financial audit began.

In Karen Devine's I-Team exclusive, “Dogs and Dollars," Malinda Bustos is back on the board. Devine speaks with a local animal activist who is outraged with the decision to allow Bustos back on the board. And, hears from a newly appointed board member who supports her return.

Devine asked Skip Coomber, a Humane Society of the Desert board memeber, "Bottom-line, you are comfortable with Malinda being back on the board?"

“Well, I am comfortable that nothing bad happened in the past and I am ecstatic that’s she’s here now,” said Coomber.

A different reaction from local retired veterinarian and animal rights activist, Paula Terifaj, “I want her gone, I her in jail.”

Former Humane Society of the Desert president Malinda Bustos was suspended from the nonprofit in 2018 after allegations she had used donor money for personal use. Two years ago the I-Team uncovered a list of purchases charged to two separate credit cards issued to the nonprofit totaling ten’s of thousands of dollars.

Bustos never responded to our requests for an explanation or to defend herself.

Skip Coomber, an attorney and entrepreneur, who joined the board a year ago, is now speaking out on her behalf saying the purchases she made were auction items to help raise money for the animal shelter at galas and fundraisers.

“What she did is she put together packets for the affluent to bid on and those items went right into the package that they would bid on and like I said, we researched that and we’re very comfortable that nothing funny was going on,” said Coomber.

That wasn’t the opinion of the board president in 2020 who reported to the state attorney general’s office that there was a diversion of assets by former president Bustos. In a written explanation Kim Maguire-Hardee wrote, in-part:

“It is estimated that the diversion of assets for the fiscal year ended 6/30/18 between the organization and
Save-A-Pet amounted to $148,043."

"The organization contacted The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a formal investigation"

According to Maguire-Hardee, the investigation has since been closed. Bustos has not been charged.

Devine asked Coomber, “Why was Melinda Bustos allowed back on the board?”

“We investigated everything, I mean we went back, we went through all of this, we looked through records. We brought in an attorney. I’m an attorney also. But, we brought in an outside legal firm and we brought in some CPA’s. And, we’re very very comfortable nothing had happened or did happen other than maybe some sloppiness, not best practices. But she’d run it for 15 years, the board felt like family,” said Coomber.

Coomber, a former Palm Springs High School classmate with several board members including Bustos was asked to help sort out the troubles with financials and paperwork to get everything back on track in 2020. He says after Bustos left, fundraising stopped and the Humane Society was hemorrhaging money.

“When Ms. Bustos left there was over two million dollars in a reserve account. And, as of the July 8th board meeting where I presented the budget that I had prepared for the fiscal year, we were losing $39,000 a month, it’s not sustainable," said Coomber.

Losing money may not be their biggest problem. According to the Department of Justice website, the Humane Society of the Desert is delinquent. And, their state 501(c)(3) status has been revoked. The most recent correspondence from the DOJ says, in-part:

"In 2018 an independent audit was required. No audit was conducted."

“You’re obligated when you exceed two million dollars with your return, your tax return to the state you turn in an independent audit, that wasn’t done," said Coomber.

In response to the DOJ, Board Treasurer Ken Solomon sent a two page letter in August of 2020 asking for an exemption to the audit requirement, citing:

The jump in revenue was due to the Humane Society’s partnership with a neighboring hospital. The one time transfer of more than 1.3 million dollars put them over the two millon dollar mark.

“So basically what it is, is the State wants a seal of approval from an independent CPA firm that everything is legit." Devine asked, “and that’s happening now?” Coomber responded, “That’s in the process right now and it will be done I imagine it will be completed by the end of July.”

That million-dollar plus transfer? It's when they combined resources with another animal shelter in the valley,

Retired veterinarian and animal activist Paula Terifaj says that's when the trouble began for her. She's outraged Bustos is back on the board.

She started a group facebook page “Friends of Save-A-Pet" and even held a protest in front of the Humane Society.

“When Save-A-Pet Dogs went missing, that’s when I held a protest. Yeah, they disappeared, we couldn’t find them. They wouldn’t let us visit them. She just picked them up in a van and drove them off. Bye Bye," said Terifaj.

And, the closure of the animal hospital, once in the hands of the Humane Society is also a point of contention for her.

“It didn’t make sense at the time, they were, we worked really hard there, I was there for a short period of time but we were doing good work at that hospital,” said Terifaj.

Coomber says the closure happened because the veterinarian resigned. He says they are working with the City of Desert Hot Springs to get it up and running again as a low cost provider by the end of the year.

Devine asked, “Why should donors trust that the money is going to help the dogs and run the facility?”

“I’m sort of an expert on best practices and now we have best practices in place so nothing can be misconstrued,” said Coomber.

The City of Desert Hot Springs confirmed they are looking to buy the animal hospital from the Humane Society with the intention of having another operator run the facility. That still has to go to council.

We've learned the 501(c)(3) status of "Humane Society of the Desert" is revoked. This means that your donations may not be tax-deductible. The State Department of Justice registry is now listing both "Humane Society of the Desert" and "Save-A-Pet" as delinquent.

If you want to find out the status of an organization that you want to donate to, go to the State of California Department of Justice website and click on charities. You can search by the name of the nonprofit or the federal tax identification number.

The website is

Article Topic Follows: I-Team

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Karen Devine

Karen Devine is celebrating her 29th year delivering the local news as an anchor and reporter in the Palm Springs television market. Learn more about Karen here.

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