tampabay.com

Seabird sanctuary faces shakeup

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published February 14, 2007


Among Melinda Lindsey's big plans to save the struggling Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary: a benefit concert featuring the likes of Carly Simon and Mick Jagger.

It would be a glitzy last-ditch effort to save the Indian Shores sanctuary, all organized by Lindsey, a former music producer and environmentalist with rock star friends willing to help out.

The problem is that Lindsey is not a member of the Suncoast's staff, and before last week, few involved with the charity had heard of her.

Now, her zealous efforts to save the refuge, one of the largest bird hospitals in the country, have alienated longtime charity employees and have raised concerns about Lindsey's qualifications.

The power struggle is just the latest controversy surrounding Suncoast. Questions linger about the charity's management and whether the organization can be saved. The sanctuary was temporarily shut down last week for failing to make a workers' compensation insurance payment of about $2,700.

"We are just really taking it on a day-by-day basis," said Ralph Heath, the sanctuary's president and founder.

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Before she moved in, before she angered the sanctuary's staff, Lindsey was just another earth lover trying to make a difference.

The 50-year-old New York native studied philanthropy at the Foundation Center, a research and training organization in Manhattan, and started a charity of her own, EarthFriends, in 1995.

The following year, funding she thought she had secured for a research group on Red Tide fell through and she filed for bankruptcy. She eventually moved to Florida to start over.

Last fall, she arrived at the sanctuary with her close friend and longtime business partner, famed rock producer Tony Bongiovi, looking for a day of peace.

The two ended up meeting Heath, who told them the sanctuary was on the verge of going under. Operation costs had quadrupled, he said, while donations were down.

To Lindsey and Bongiovi, a self-professed bird lover, the news was shocking.

"The birds looked like they hadn't been fed very well," recalled Bongiovi, who is on the board of directors of EarthFriends.

Heath was living in his family home on the property but decided to rent it out to help raise money. Lindsey immediately offered to become the tenant and gave Heath $8,000 up front.

Lindsey told him she had a background in fundraising and would help turn the sanctuary around. Heath said he took her word for it, never asking for references.

"She seems like she has a lot of experience with fundraising and public service announcements and video advertisements, and, of course, Tony Bongiovi has had an incredible amount of experience with sound," Heath said.

About a week after Lindsey moved in, the sanctuary was shut down for two days. She immediately called the media to plead for public donations.

The gesture angered the staff, many of whom had never heard of Lindsey. They were shocked that Heath had given her so much authority.

"She has absolutely no authority as a spokeswoman," said Suzanne Gilmore-Sakal, the sanctuary's office manager and director of marketing, who resigned over the flap.

Lindsey said she was shocked that workers seemed threatened.

"They don't know who I am, and I don't know who they are, and there is such hatred here," Lindsey said. "I simply want to find new and creative ways of keeping the public aware of our shorelines and our seabirds."

For some, it was just the latest example of Heath's alleged mismanagement. In 2004, Heath was criticized for purchasing a 54-foot luxury sailboat as a research vessel. In 2006, Heath took heat again after allowing a pornographic Web site to take pictures of barely clothed underage girls on sanctuary property.

Employees also complain that Heath has stored many donations, including antique vehicles and historical relics, in a warehouse instead of selling them to raise money. Heath denies the allegations.

For the most part, the rumors do not bother Lindsey, who said she only wants to help Heath save the birds. She said Heath plans to use the stored donations to start a Suncoast museum.

"Whatever his human failures are, that is between him and God," she said. "If it weren't for people like him, it is incalculable how many of these birds might have died."

So Lindsey has taken over.

Last week, she moved her EarthFriends charity to Florida, where she hopes she can now collect money to save the sanctuary and other environmental groups in need.

She hasn't yet contacted Jagger or Simon about the benefit concert, she said. It's still in the early stages.

But she'll get it done, she said, and she hopes saving the sanctuary will follow.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.