In a stunning development, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) chose this week to stand by CEO Wayne Pacelle amidst complaints of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment by HSUS employees. Twenty-eight of HSUS’s 31 board members participated in a 7 hour telephone conference on February 2nd that culminated in a vote of 17-9 in favor of retaining the beleagured CEO. (Two members abstained.) In protest of the decision, seven members of the HSUS Board immediately resigned.
Following backlash from donors, HSUS employees, and the public, Pacelle announced his resignation the next day in an email. “I am resigning, effective immediately . . . to put aside any distractions, in the best interests of all parties,” he wrote.
The board vote and Pacelle’s subsequent resignation came at the conclusion of an allegedly independent investigation by the law firm of Morgan Lewis. (Notably, HSUS board member and former Chair, Anita W. Coupe, was a partner in labor and employment with Morgan Lewis.) The Morgan Lewis investigation lasted from late December until late January and 33 people were interviewed, including Pacelle. According to multiple media sources, the investigation, whose findings were based on interviews, evidence provided by witnesses and emails on Pacelle’s work computer (FN1), the memo of findings reported that:
- HSUS had settled three complaints from women after they were terminated or demoted after making sexual harassment claims against Pacelle (FN1);
- Three additional women employees claimed they were subjected to Pacelle’s unwelcome advances toward them (FN1);
- The nature of the claims included Pacelle seeking to masturbate in front of an employee, offering to perform oral sex on an employee and forcibly kissing an employee against her will, among others (FN1);
- Senior women employees at HSUS stated that their warnings about Pacelle’s conduct in the work place were ignored (FN1).
In addition to the claims against Pacelle himself, multiple women complained of harassment from former HSUS Vice President of Policy, Paul Shapiro, who resigned in January, approximately one week after the investigation began. One employee, Ashley Rinhehart, allegedly complained to Pacelle, her superior, after being repeatedly sexually harassed by Shapiro, and Pacelle, covering for his colleague, told her, “boys will be boys.” (FN2)
Following its decision to retain Pacelle as CEO, HSUS Chair, Rick Bernthal wrote, “we did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence.” FN3.
“We are not an association that investigates sexual harassment…Which red blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody?”
~ Erika Brunson, HSUS Board Member
Board member, Erika Brunson, an interior designer, who participated in the 7 hour teleconference stated, “We’re not an association that investigates sexual harassment.” FN4 She went on to add, “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody? Women should be able to take care of themselves.” FN5 (Brunson left the HSUS board in the wake of Pacelle’s resignation. FN3)
The HSUS board conference call has been described as “extremely dysfunctional.” Although the investigators were not included to answer questions, Pacelle was given the floor for ten minutes to extol his own performance record within HSUS and to deny all wrongdoing. Some board members were disturbed by the implication that Pacelle’s fundraising record was relevant to accusations of illegal workplace misconduct. FN3.
Bernthal’s claim that the allegations against Pacelle lacked “credible evidence” is simply not plausible. HSUS has paid to settle three claims by women that they were wrongfully terminated for complaining of Pacelle’s sexual harassment. To suggest that the mega non-profit paid to settle claims that lacked “credible evidence” is patently disingenuous. In addition to its legal responsibilities, the board acts in a fiduciary role by maintaining oversight of the nonprofit’s finances. Where was Bernthal’s oversight when HSUS was paying to settle sexual harassment claims that lacked “credible evidence”?
This comes in addition to the $15.75 million settlement HSUS paid along with two of its lawyers, and its affiliate, the Fund for Animals, along with other animal rights activists, as a multi-party settlement of a federal racketeering lawsuit to Feld Entertainment in 2014 that was not covered by insurance. FN6.
How many millions of dollars of donations has HSUS paid out to settle lawsuits under Pacelle’s direction?
Predictably, in the midst of the backlash against an institutional enviroment that appears pervasively hostile to women, HSUS has appointed Cristobel “Kitty” Block as its acting CEO. Block is currently President of Humane Society International (HSI), HSUS’s global wildlife charity. Block came to HSUS from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) where she worked as an investigator. (You can read more about PeTA here.)
While Block likely shares Pacelle’s views on animals and animal ownership, it is unlikely that she will share his unprecedented skill for fundraising. Under Pacelle’s stewardship, HSUS has grown in the last decade from $160 million in assets to $210 million in assets (although unknown millions of dollars of donations have apparently gone to fund settlements for racketeering and for Pacelle’s sexual escapades). It also remains to be seen how donors will react to HSUS’s persistent protection of what appears to be an extremely toxic work environment for women.
FN1 Paquette, Danielle (January 29, 2018). “Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle accused of sexual harassment by three women.” Retrieved February 3, 2018 – via http://www.chicagotribune.com.
FN2 Townsend, Karen (February 1, 2018). “Let’s hope Humane Society treats animals better than women.” Retrieved February 3, 2018 – via http://www.hotair.com.
FN3 Paquette, Daneille (February 2, 2018). “Humane Society CEO resigns after sexual harassment allegations.” Retrieved February 3, 3018 – via http://www.washingtonpost.com.
FN4 Okun, Gabrielle (February 2, 2018). “Humane Society Does Not Investigate Sexual Harassment, Board Member Says.” Retrieved February 4, 2018 – via http://www.dailycaller.com
FN5 Bosman, Julie et al. (February 2, 2018). “Humane Society CEO resigns amid sexual harassment allegations.” Retrieved February 3, 2018 – via http://www.nytimes.com.
FN6 Humanewatch. (May 16, 2014). “HSUS denied insurance coverage in racketeering lawsuit.” Retrieved February 3, 2014 – via http://www.humanewatch.org.