Ken Matherne says he didn't set out to create a wildlife park some 30 years ago, but after buying some deer, kangaroos and giraffes in the early 1990s and letting them roam free on the 900 acres he owns near Folsom, a public attraction was born.

And, as it turns out, a very lucrative one.

Global Wildlife Center is incorporated as a public charity, a nonprofit that claims its tax exemption by stating an educational mission on its tax forms. But it's also a money-making machine that generated more than $3.7 million in revenue in 2017, according to its most recent tax filing, up from $3.2 million in 2016.

Boasting 4,000 animals, including exotic and endangered species, the center is a popular destination for school field trips, family outings and tourists who pony up between $13 and $19 per person to take tours on tractor-drawn wagons.

Paradise Lost: Global Wildlife Center draws fire from ex-employees, visitors for animal injuries, alleged neglect

Visitors also pay to feed the animals, from $4 for a cup of pellets to $32 for a family bucket — provisions that animals crowd the wagons to gobble up, providing visitors a closeup interaction with wildlife.

But the park's wholesome, family-friendly reputation is under fire. Former employees are criticizing the care given to the animals, saying accidents with the wagons are common and the injured animals are often killed with rifles, hammers or baseball bats rather than getting veterinary care.

The former employees are also raising pointed questions about who benefits from the money generated by the park. And nonprofit experts, including Khrista McCarden, a law professor at Tulane University, say some obvious red flags suggest that Matherne could be taking advantage of the organization's tax-exempt status to enrich himself. 

"We're just told to tell people it's a nonprofit and all this money is a donation, and it goes back into Global Wildlife and does all this for the animals," former employee Megan Smith said. "When, in all reality, none of that happens."

While nonprofit boards are supposed to provide oversight and prevent abuses, one member of Global Wildlife's board — who is also Matherne's sister — said she doesn't believe the board has ever met.

The former workers say that Matherne profits from renting the land, animals and equipment to the nonprofit. On top of that, he lives in a large house on the premises, an arrangement that the ex-employees say they are instructed not to reveal. The ex-employees also recount being sent on errands while on the clock to buy food, alcohol and personal supplies for Matherne, using the nonprofit's credit card.

And in a twist that seems to run counter to the pro-conservation image Global Wildlife promotes, the employees say Matherne routinely sells deer to hunting camps. Sales of "inventory" brought in $1.5 million in 2017, according to the nonprofit's tax form, although the documents do not give details about what that inventory was.

Who profits?

So, how does Matherne, 61, profit from the nonprofit?

Matherne owns a for-profit business called Global Resources LLC, which began as an oil-related business. He also owns the north shore property, which he acquired through inheritance and buying out other heirs.

He makes no secret of his wealth. In a 2001 article about the animal park, Matherne said his family's success in the oil business allowed him to retire in his early 30s. Campaign records show he's given six-figure sums to charity and to Republican political candidates, including a $100,000 donation to the Donald Trump Victory PAC in 2016. He also owns a two-story yacht, called The Boardroom, which former employees estimate was a million-dollar purchase.

Global Resources rents the land, the animals and equipment to the nonprofit, according to former employees and a recent Times-Picayune article about the park. Matherne is listed as the property owner on parish tax rolls.

Rent and contracts make up the largest expenses for the foundation, according to the nonprofit's tax forms, totaling $1.2 million in 2017. The next biggest category listed is employee salaries, at $682,000.

Matherne has declined requests for an interview and, in a brief phone conversation, did not answer any questions about the park's financial arrangements.

Jimmy Zamin, the newly hired general manager of Global Wildlife, said he is not familiar with its finances.

But the lines between Global Wildlife, Global Resources and Matherne himself are blurry. The for-profit company's Facebook page is almost exclusively devoted to information about the wildlife park. Matherne is the only officer listed for Global Resources with the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office; he is also listed as the registered agent. The address for Global Resources is the same as the park's.

Tax rules don't flat-out forbid charities from doing business with their directors or other nonprofit officials. But there are tight restrictions on the ability of private individuals to benefit from charities, according to McCarden, the Tulane professor who specializes in nonprofit tax law.

Crucially, the rental price of the land and animals must be set at a fair market value, she said, and a charity is required to have a record justifying the rent being charged. The reason: The tax benefits that nonprofits receive from the federal government are valuable, and allowing them to pay above-market prices for various items would create an incentive for taxpayers to create bogus charities. 

"That really raises what is known as (an) excess benefit transaction issue," McCarden said. "We can't have a situation where a director or an officer is receiving an excessive benefit from doing business with a charity."

Max Stephenson Jr., director of the Institute for Policy and Governance at Virginia Tech University, said he would never recommend such an arrangement to a nonprofit because they should avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest and private inurement, or benefit.

"His (Matherne's) interest and that of the nonprofit's board should be ensuring that no appearance of concerns of any kind arise concerning the issue of potentially self-dealing — whether it exists empirically or not," Stephenson said. "This situation does not pass that test, in my view."

Other revenue streams

Global Wildlife's revenue isn't limited to what it brings in from tours, nearly $2.7 million in 2017. 

The nonprofit also sells animals, and while the employee manual instructs workers to say that they are sold and traded to zoos, former workers say that they are sold to hunting camps. In 2017, that brought in $1.5 million, which, less the cost of the goods sold, produced just under $1 million in revenue.

"They don't want anyone to know that they're making this extra money by selling these large stock animals to hunting-fishing camps," former employee Russell Ellzey said.

Ex-employee Brad Nethery and Ellzey described the process of tranquilizing deer and then putting them in a trailer. "We would catch 20, 30 fallow deer at a time and put them in a trailer and bring them to their spot, and they were hunted," Nethery said.

While the tax forms don't detail Global Wildlife's $1.5 million in "inventory" sales, a March 1 U.S. Department of Agriculture report found that two deer were shot and killed by two members of the animal care staff "for sport."

"The incident occurred while handling a small herd of various hoofstock for a sale," the report states.

Another potential conflict is raised by Matherne's living arrangements.

According to government records and more than a dozen ex-employees who have worked there over a period of 20 years, Matherne lives in a large house with a pool on the Global Wildlife property, known as The Bungalows. He has a homestead exemption on the house, which can only be granted for a personal residence, and the local assessor puts its value at $430,000. The home is also listed as Matherne's domicile for his voter registration.

The Global Wildlife employee manual instructs workers to say that The Bungalows is for "visiting directors, media, corporate sponsors and VIP guests."

"We were supposed to remain completely hush that there was anyone that lived there on the facility or that anyone profited from the facility," Ellzey said.

Another former worker, Corissa Gioia, described the living arrangements as "one of the top 10 things of what not to say when you're trained."

"He lives at The Bungalows. That is his residence. We're to deny that until we're blue in the face," Ellzey said.

McCarden said she considers it problematic that Matherne lives on the property.

Experts are also emphatic that nonprofit funds may not be used for living expenses, which McCarden said would raise the "inurement red flag." But former employees said they were routinely sent to buy things like wine, food and other personal items for Matherne using the Global Wildlife credit card.

"I've had to personally go grocery shopping, on the clock ... with Global Wildlife's credit card and then bring the groceries back to The Bungalows for him," Gioia said.

Ex-employee Sarah Ellzey reported the credit card use in a complaint she filed in February with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office.

"Profited greatly off the nonprofit," she wrote in the complaint. "Used GWC (Global Wildlife Center) credit cards for personal items."

McCarden said any type of purchase that doesn't relate to advancing the charitable purpose of the nonprofit violates the rule against benefiting a private individual.

Stephenson said it would be a problem even if Matherne reimbursed the nonprofit every month for purchases made on his behalf. "It is an apparent misuse and breach of fiduciary trust and use of resources that simply should not occur," he said.

Board in name only?

It's not clear that the nonprofit's board — which would typically review agreements to police any conflicts of interest — is exercising any real oversight.

Penny Dastugue, the former chairwoman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Matherne's sister, is one of six board members listed on the 2017 tax form. Dastugue said she recalled her brother asking her to be on the board more than two decades ago, but said she had never been invited to or attended a board meeting.

"We have never met as a board in those 20-plus years," Dastugue said. "I personally don’t have any input into or knowledge of any of the financial arrangements between my brother and Global Wildlife Foundation. I've never seen a lease, never seen a partnership agreement. I've never had any access to any of that."

"My knowledge of Global Wildlife is as a visitor — that’s about it," she said, adding that she typically visits the park in a social capacity several times a year.

Global Wildlife's tax forms show that the nonprofit is sitting on more than $4.2 million in assets, but the forms suggest that wealth isn't helping the animals much. The 2016 form listed only $15,000 spent for animal care and supplies and $168 for veterinary care. The most recent form does not break down those expenses.

Of the $4.2 million listed in assets, more than $3.6 million is cash, according to Global Wildlife's tax forms.

But even with the cash reserves, and relatively little spent on animal feed, medical expenses or safety improvements, Matherne launched an online fundraiser in October 2017. A Facebook post by Matherne stated, “I’m raising money for Global Wildlife Foundation. Every little bit helps. This cause means a lot to me, and I believe that we can make a difference together.”

A few months later, in 2018, Matherne launched another fundraiser, which he called “Ken’s Birthday Fundraiser for Global Wildlife Foundation.”

Both of the efforts show that they easily raised the stated $1,000 goal. But when some people raised questions about the fundraisers, including an observation that Matherne had posted about his trip to a luxury spa resort in Texas around the same time, another message appeared under Matherne’s page: “Sorry — this was a total joke — playing with Facebook & friends.”

Education — about wildlife, conservation and endangered species — is the charity's stated purpose. And on its tax forms, Global Wildlife says there are free lesson plans for teachers available on the nonprofit's website. But none appear there. The only programs listed under the education tab cost an extra $5 per person — on top of the entry fee.

"This isn't about conservation or education," Russell Ellzey said. "The conversation wasn't there, the love wasn't there. It had become a money machine."

Advocate staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.


Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.