She presided over an astonishing $6 million turnaround in the organisation's finances. If she had been a player in the corporate world, a friend pointed out, she would probably have been handed a handsome bonus and a pay rise. But instead, while Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) members angrily debated the factors behind the organisation's fiscal success at Thursday night's annual meeting, executive director Pauline Taylor was on sick leave waiting for her contract to be terminated. What should have been a celebratory annual meeting, with the animal welfare charity enjoying its first surplus after years of successive deficit, ended with the Independent Commission against Corruption being invited to examine the SPCA accounts. Behind it lies a tale of personality clashes and financial intrigue that led to a highly respected vet, who switched from the medicine to the politics of animal welfare, falling so sick with stress that her doctor has signed her off work from October until January. Despite the insistence by SPCA general manager John Lang at the beginning of the week that he hoped Dr Taylor would 'get well and return to work', her career in SPCA management is clearly over. Dr Taylor is privately negotiating a settlement with the organisation and Mr Lang has subsequently clarified his remark, saying he never specified which place of work he hoped to see her return to. Dr Taylor's case may also come before a Labour Tribunal shortly. The maelstrom surrounding the executive director's departure centres squarely on the success of the SPCA, which has 25,000 local members, in turning its financial position around, converting a $3 million loss in the previous financial year to a $3 million surplus in 2003-04. Dr Taylor was baffled by the sheer scale of the turnaround and wanted to investigate why, until she took over in September last year, the 80-year-old society had apparently been haemorrhaging funds to such an extent. She wanted to know what had been happening to all the public's donations, and to the $1 million or so the government gave the organisation every year - the society's two main sources of income. She brought in a private investigator - Phil Curlewis - to look into the society's finances, a move that infuriated committee members who later said they were not consulted over the matter and knew nothing about him 'rooting around' the organisation's records. Dr Taylor introduced Mr Curlewis to SPCA chairwoman Lisa Tsui Wing-miu at one of the weekly meetings the pair shared and, apparently without reference to the executive committee, sought authorisation for Mr Curlewis to be paid to investigate the society's financial matters. When Ms Tsui turned the funding request down, Mr Curlewis carried on with his investigations, working for free as a friend, and produced a recommendation that the ICAC be invited to check the SPCA's accounts to clear them of any irregularities. That recommendation was likewise rejected by the chairman. Asked at Thursday's meeting why she did not approve the investigation by Mr Curlewis, Ms Tsui responded: 'Do I have to accept every investigator that approaches the society?' When she was pressed on why she did not raise the matter with the executive committee, who say they only learnt later of Mr Curlewis' unofficial investigations, she replied crossly: 'I can't bring everything to the executive committee. If I go to the toilet do I have to tell them?' By that stage on Thursday, the normally low-key annual meeting had descended into an ill-tempered showdown between a small group of members agitating for Ms Tsui and the society's treasurer Rob Morris, to address the controversy raging over recent days. Last year, the SPCA's annual meeting was attended by only 30 people and was over in 40 minutes. On Thursday, there was standing room only at the back as twice the number crowded into the Yacht Club to see the two-hour meeting build into a stormy crescendo. Veteran journalist Ted Thomas - who joined the society only the day before - and seasoned debater Christine Houston, who led the campaign to stop the English Schools Foundation appointing a controversial chief executive last year, bombarded the top table along with a small and heavily outnumbered handful of 'rebel' members. The rebels' attempts to hijack the meeting were met with an organised wall of resistance, supported by the vast majority of members who turned up. There was nothing sinister in the turnaround in the SPCA's fortunes, treasurer Mr Morris insisted, stressing that it had been a team effort rather than the achievement of one woman. 'Very simply, there was a tremendous effort in the fund-raising activities of the society,' he said. 'Income from fund-raising increased by 66 per cent and there was also a cost-saving exercise which primarily related to salaries ...those are the two prime reasons [for the turnaround].' He went on: 'Fund-raising was a collective issue from the society as a whole involving the executive committee ...It is rather unjust to claim that one person is responsible for that performance' Mr Morris dismissed calls from Ms Houston for an extraordinary general meeting into allegations aired in the past week over the society's finances. 'If every allegation in every newspaper was subjected to an EGM ...' he began, only for Ms Houston to interject: 'There wouldn't have been Enron.' Any suggestion of financial mismanagement would be 'obviously serious', the treasurer insisted. 'We would like to know what these allegations are so we can see if they are substantiated,' he said. Despite the swirl of speculation about the SPCA's finances brought about by Dr Taylor's departure, however, the fact is that no single substantive allegation has so far been levelled. Unless the ICAC invitation leads to new revelations, the controversy may ultimately turn out to be one borne of personality differences rather than financial irregularities. Friends of Dr Taylor, who did not return calls for comment, say she simply wanted the finances investigated for the sake of transparency and to discover how the deficit had been occurring for so many years. 'There was no evidence of financial impropriety,' one friend said. 'It was simply that Dr Taylor was at a loss to explain how there had been such a major turnaround in the financial position and felt it was important to find out the reasons.' Dr Taylor, a vet in Hong Kong for eight years, had been driven by a desire to see the SPCA being as accountable as possible, the friend said. 'It was about the old ladies living in high-rises in Kowloon giving $100 out of their savings for the animals. Those are the people who pay to keep the SPCA going and she felt it was her responsibility to put that money to the best possible use.' As executive director and, previously, deputy executive director for three years, she established a reputation as a direct, no-nonsense committee head who was effective and sharp, although sometimes impatient with the bureaucratic burden of her administrative role. Tensions between Dr Taylor and the executive committee, some of whom complained of her 'abrasive' style and lack of consultation with them, grew to the point where they no longer felt able to work together. On October 12, she was signed off sick with stress by her doctor, her illness attributed to the strain of her working environment. 'Pauline was genuinely sick, there is no doubt about it,' the friend said. 'It has all been an enormous strain and the SPCA situation was the only thing in her life creating that tension.' Executive committee member Diane Stormont yesterday declined to comment on the breakdown in relations between the committee and Dr Taylor, saying it would be inappropriate to comment when a possible Labour Tribunal hearing was imminent. 'I'm confident that the society's financial affairs are in order. The society's accounts team is very sound. We have an honorary treasurer who is a partner in Ernst & Young and there's no chance of pulling the wool over his eyes - and the numbers are scrutinised at every monthly meeting,' Ms Stormont said. A senior SPCA member, who asked not to be named, also insisted there was no scandal lurking beneath the controversy. Setting up a multi-million dollar new Kowloon centre had drained society finances with Jockey Club funding coming nowhere near meeting the total cost, she said. 'It was Kowloon that was draining us - that and the fact that fund-raising wasn't that good,' she said. For the annual meeting of a group established in the interests of animal welfare, there was precious little mention of four-legged friends at Thursday night's meeting - until long-serving volunteer Carol Dyer spelled out to members what was potentially at stake. 'A lot of people may lose confidence in the management of this society and in future, fund-raising may not be as good,' she said. 'We owe it to the society for this to be dealt with in a professional manner - because animals will be the losers.'