Contact 13 Investigates
Helping pets or helping themselves?
Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) - Helping pets or helping themselves to profits?
That's what many are wondering about an animal charity that just popped up here in Las Vegas.
In a hidden-camera investigation, Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears confronts the people behind the pets and follows the money trail, which leads out of state.
Fremont Street is filled with characters. And without a doubt, Bernie Kessler is one of them.
You'll find him there day and night drumming up dollars for his non-profit organization H.E.L.P., which stands for Help Elevate Life for Pets.
"How much can I put you down for today? At least try to make the suggested donation of $20 or more. You don't want thousands of these abandoned dogs and cats to be killed, right? Right?" he asked our undercover team on hidden camera.
Al Gomez owns an airbrush t-shirt shop right across from Bernie's table.
"Why do you think they came here to Las Vegas and to Fremont Street?" Darcy Spears asked Airbrush Al.
"Because you could be a drunk, you could be homeless, you could be anything here and ask someone for a dollar and more than likely they'll give it to you."
When you give money to H.E.L.P.'s solicitors in Las Vegas, it ends up in Glendale, Arizona at their no-kill, no-cage animal shelter.
Our affiliate in Phoenix paid them a visit.
"Do you think this is a good condition for a cat to be living in, in here?" asked Lori Jane Gliha of KNXV.
"Uh, well, I don't know. It could be better," answered H.E.L.P. volunteer John French.
The place looks like a junkyard.
There only about 25 animals--eight dogs and the rest cats--roaming amongst trailers and in an unfinished house on a property filled with old cars, boats, jet skis, shopping carts, tires, even a hot tub.
There's a clothing donation bin outside the shelter filled with a mixture of clothes and trash.
The barefoot volunteer says they do the best they can for the animals.
"If we didn't house them and feed them, where would they be? They'd probably be dead," French said.
The flier Bernie and his solicitors give out on Fremont Street lists a Las Vegas address as the group's "local nation-wide office."
Contact 13 went to check it out.
Darcy Spears: "Hi. Are you the local nation-wide office of H.E.L.P.?"
Sheri Kessler: "Yes."
Bernie's wife, Sheri, told us they're leaving Arizona because they're losing their land to eminent domain.
But others think they're trying to leave their past behind.
In 2009, Bernie's solicitation tactics in Scottsdale landed him in jail.
He was found guilty of unlawful imprisonment, impersonating a public servant and public nuisance. And he was banned from soliciting there for three years.
Contact 13 obtained H.E.L.P.'s 2010 IRS form, which shows over the last five years, they've made more than half a million dollars.
Darcy: "How are you spending the money that your tax forms say that you raise? It was almost $80,000 last year."
Sheri: "To try and pay for the place there so the animals can survive and we can move them here."
Sheri told us we needed to ask Bernie the rest of our questions, and he agreed to sit down with us.
He says H.E.L.P. is on "a divine mission to save animals."
He showed us notebook after notebook of handwritten documentation that he says are all the records of his adoptions over the last 25 years.
We asked about the petition he wanted our undercover team to sign.
"It's going... I go around to the various mayors when they have meetings and I'm trying to get free or low-cost neutering and spaying not only here, but in every single state," Bernie explained.
Free and low-cost spaying and neutering is already available here in Southern Nevada.
But Bernie says it's not enough and he's got bigger plans than that for Las Vegas.
"I pledge my life that I will bring a veterinarian college to the State of Nevada."
That and a brand new shelter.
"The most beautiful shelter that there is in the United States. That I promise. The most beautiful--where people will say, literally, I would rather live in that shelter than in my own home. And if it's not done you can hang me by the throat."
We wondered about his solicitation tactics and why he's got a wheelchair parked at his table. The solicitors change, but the wheelchair remains.
"It's a ploy, period," says Al Gomez, shaking his head. "I mean, why do you have a wheelchair if you're not in a wheelchair?"
Bernie has an answer for that too.
He says his solicitors all have bad backs or other physical ailments and they need to sit down.
He says Fremont doesn't let vendors use chairs, but they cant' keep him from using this.
"It's just wrong, period," Gomez believes.
Some who've seen that Arizona shelter think there's a lot wrong about it, too.
Darcy: "It looks kind of like a junkyard."
Bernie: "I'm glad you mentioned that. Other people's junk is our treasure."
He says they sell it for scrap. So why isn't there more money for the animals?
"I allow the solicitors to take 50%. Why? I can't get anybody," Bernie says. "This is the hardest job in the world. Rejection, rejection, rejection."
Bernie's solicitation tactics were rejected by the State of California in the early 90's when he was sued by the California Attorney General for allegedly pocketing the money he claimed to raise for animals.
Bernie: "I used some of the money, some of the money that I had, for buying fans and buying merchandise."
Darcy: "And paying mortgage and making car payments."
Bernie: "That is correct. But we're so poor! We lived with the animals in a small place."
He settled that case, but some of his fundraising tactics are still questionable. Listen to something else he said to our undercover producer.
"We get matching funds today, so that every $20 or more will be doubled because of the matching funds."
Matching funds usually means a company has pledged to match the money donated by the public.
But to Bernie, it means something entirely different.
He told us after our interview that his matching funds would hopefully come from other passers-by.
"I love doing what I'm doing. That's why I'm out here," Bernie says with emotion rising in his voice. "As long as I'm alive, if I can save an animal I will."
We checked with the Humane Societies and Animal Control in both Maricopa County, Arizona and Las Vegas.
None of them have ever heard of H.E.L.P.
As a result of our inquiry, Las Vegas Animal Control is now investigating their activities.
We want to clarify something about H.E.L.P.'s website, which is http://helpsavepets.com/. The same address at dot org (http://helpsavepets.org/) belongs to the Humane Society of Plainfield, Illinois.
And they're not affiliated with H.E.L.P. in any way.