The Humane Society of the US: Still reckoning with #metoo

Wayne Pacelle

For more than a year, the Humane Society of the United States, the US’s most powerful animal-welfare group, has been trying to recover from charges of sexual harassment levied against Wayne Pacelle, its former chief executive.

The Humane Society’s board has apologized to women who lodged complaints against Pacelle, adopted new policies and practices, brought on new members, commissioned a pay-equity study and — after women at HSUS hired a lawyer to represent their interests — launched what it calls a reconciliation process to try to understand what went wrong and how best to prevent future problems.

On January 25, HSUS’s board appointed Kitty Block, a lawyer who has devoted more than a quarter of a century to animal welfare — and who is herself a survivor of sexual harassment at HSUS — as its new president and CEO. It also selected two new directors, Susan Atherton and Tom Sabatino, to co-chair the board.

Mission accomplished? Not yet.

Kitty Block

In their first interviews since taking on their new roles, Block, Atherton and Sabatino all said they hope to put HSUS’s troubles behind them and build a stronger organization. But they brushed off questions about what went wrong last year, and declined to say whether they will make public the results of the reconciliation process.

“I joke with staff that the best thing about 2019 is that it’s not 2018 anymore,” Block says. “It’s been a tough year for all of us.” She adds: “We’re stronger and better now.”

Maybe. But if HSUS wants to regain the support and trust of donors, staff and allies, its board of directors will have to deal with some unfinished business. First, the directors will need to make public, in some form, the findings of the reconciliation process, if only so that Pacelle and, perhaps, others who behaved badly are held accountable. Second, some donors are calling on HSUS to remove from the board those directors who supported Pacelle — and discounted the allegations against him — when news of the scandal broke.

The stakes are high, for those who care about animal suffering or about women in the farmed animal movement, where they make up about 70 percent of the staff, a recent survey found.

With assets of more than $300m and a revenues of $209m in 2017 — the last year for which information is available — HSUS has been a powerful advocate for animals, particularly for the nine billion farm animals raised for food each year in the US. It played a key role, for example, in persuading California voters last year to pass Proposition 12, a ballot measure banning the sale of meat and eggs from animals kept in tightly-restricted cages.

But HSUS has been wounded by the sexual-harassment scandal. Last year, HSUS’s revenues fell, as donations grew to other animal welfare groups. (Block wouldn’t say by how much.) HSUS has also spent a small fortune to clean up the messes created by the scandal — on an initial investigation by the Washington office of a corporate law firm, Morgan Lewis; on the ongoing reconciliation process, led by a feminist lawyer named Kate Kimpel; and on consultants to deal with issues of pay equity and workplace culture. (An HSUS spokesman declined to estimate the cost of lawyers and consultants.) Those fixes are vital, but they require HSUS to spend donor money that could otherwise have been put to work on behalf of animals.

Harder to calculate, but obviously important, are the human costs borne by women who worked at HSUS. Several who publicly accused Pacelle of harassment left the organization. Others who complained about his conduct were asked to leave and given settlements. In a Facebook post last year, Melinda Fox, a former HSUS staff member, said she had received more than 100 “messages from women at HSUS, formerly with HSUS, in other animal protection orgs, or working in other fields now because of how they were mistreated in animal protection work. They all shared messages of similar experiences in orgs/in the movement, or have witnessed women being negated, harassed, abused.” Today’s HSUS surely would be stronger had women been treated better.

Making matters worse at HSUS was the board’s response to the charges against Pacelle. The directors hired Grace Speights, a partner at Morgan Lewis, to investigate after getting a complaint; she interviewed more than 30 people, but when news of the investigation leaked, the board abruptly ended her work and voted to retain Pacelle. Eric “Rick” Bernthal, the board chair, said then: “We did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence,” a comment that angered women. Only after seven board members quit and donors and staff members rebelled did Pacelle resign. He has maintained his innocence, telling The Washington Post: “I absolutely deny any suggestion that I did anything untoward.”

Block, Atherton and Sabatino decline to delve into that history, although Block did say that the complaints against Pacelle came as a surprise to her. She has worked at HSUS since 1992, most recently as president of its international affiliate.

“I didn’t know about the investigation,” Block says. “That was kept confidential until it wasn’t.”

Part of the problem, she says, was that HSUS’s focus on the plight of animals led to neglect of issues of workplace culture. “We all work really hard and we are incredibly mission driven,” Block says. Across the nonprofit sector, she says, workplace and equity issues got insufficient attention. That’s being remedied now, she says.

Atherton, a philanthropist and former technology executive, said the appointments of Block and the new co-chairs had been welcomed, inside and outside HSUS. “The staff was really thrilled,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of people contact us, and say the organization is moving in a new direction.”

Sabatino, a longtime animal advocate and corporate lawyer, says building a stronger board is a priority. Gibson Dunn, a global law firm that worked pro bono for HSUS, recommended governance reforms that are being put into place. More than half of the current board members are either new to the board or voted not to retain Pacelle, Sabatino noted.

On other questions, the co-chairs were vague.

They say they want to build a culture of transparency, but would not promise to release findings from the reconciliation process, which is in its final stages. “We cannot get out ahead of the board… in terms of what we are going to say,” Sabatino says.

Kimpel, the lawyer leading the reconciliation process, who is respected for her work on behalf of women, has talked to more than 100 people about a wide range of issues, not limited to Pacelle’s conduct or to sexual harassment, insiders say. Several who spoke to her say they want the results out. “ I think it is crucial that the Board make the findings public in some way,” says Alison Schiebelhut, a former attorney at HSUS. She is one of four women, including the daughter of a donor, who have said publicly that Pacelle grabbed or kissed them or pressured them for sex; how many others had similar experiences is unknown, but the number is not zero.

Several donors say they won’t give to HSUS until the board is more forthcoming about what went wrong and directors are held accountable for their actions.

Jim Greenbaum, an animal advocate whose foundation gave $100,000 to HSUS in 2017, told me via email:

While I applaud the amazing work that HSUS is doing in some sectors, and have several close friends on staff, we have not resumed our financial support. Due to the HSUS Board’s lack of transparency and accountability, we don’t have confidence in the oversight of HSUS. Until the findings of the outside report on the Board’s handling of the Wayne Pacelle matter is made public and a possible house cleaning of those board members who may have grossly mismanaged the situation takes place, we will continue to withhold any financial support to HSUS.

Rachel Perman, director of charitable giving at plant-based food company Tofurky, said:

Tofurky has not resumed direct financial support of HSUS although we did donate Tofurky roasts to retired laboratory chimpanzees at an HSUS affiliate this past Thanksgiving.
There are still people on the HSUS board who supported Wayne Pacelle and voted to keep him after the multiple credible allegations of sexual harassment. How can we trust an organization whose stewards don’t have a problem with behavior that we consider unethical and unacceptable? There may also be Board members who are themselves in violation of Tofurky’s sexual harassment policy.
Until HSUS really listens to the victims of sexual harassment perpetrated by multiple former employees and works to redress those wrongs — including but not limited to publicly sharing the results of the most recent investigation into the harassment — Tofurky will be looking to support other groups doing similar work.

HSUS also needs to win back institutional donors, notably the Open Philanthropy Project, the US’s biggest funder of the farm animal-welfare movement. Open Philanthropy gave $1m to the Humane Society in 2016, and several donations to its international affiliate in 2017, but it has not donated since.

Recently, Amanda Hungerford of Open Phil, who formerly worked at HSUS, published a research note on Gender Equity in the Farm Animal Movement in which she described 2018 as a “brutal year” for the farmed animal movement. She cited bad behavior by men at Mercy for Animals and FARM (Farm Animal Welfare Movement), as well as at HSUS, and wrote:

When a small number of famous charismatic figures dominate movements, it can begin to seem that the rock stars are the movement, and that disciplining them for inappropriate conduct would mean harming the movement itself. That’s an incredibly dangerous posture for a movement to be in, and makes abuses of power all-but inevitable.

Animal Charity Evaluators, a small nonprofit that evaluates animal charities, had identified HSUS’s farmed animal protection campaign as a standout charity between 2014 and February 2018. It rescinded the recommendation a year ago, as Alison Smith, its former director of research, explained at some length this post.

Pacelle, for his part, has returned to the animal welfare movement, as a volunteer for a political action committee called Animal Wellness Action. It’s unclear whether HSUS’s board compensated him on the way out. “Was Wayne given a severance package? The answer is no,” Sabatino told me. But Pacelle, who led HSUS through a period of dramatic growth, may have been rewarded in other ways. An HSUS spokesman said only: “Any payments to Mr. Pacelle will be disclosed in the organization’s next public tax filing.”

Pacelle is not the first HSUS executive to be accused of harassment. David Wills, who led animal-cruelty investigations at HSUS in the early 1990s, was sued sexual harassment by two women, including Block. It turned out that Wills had hidden a prior conviction for burglary on his resume, and he was then sued by HSUS for defrauding it of $93,000, according to a 1996 article in the Washington Post. More recently, Wills was indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with assaulting and sex-trafficking a nine-year-old girl.

One day after Block was named CEO of HSUS, a former HSUS executive named Scotlund Haisley was arrested by the Washington, DC, police department and charged with twice robbing a Subway fast food outlet in northwest Washington. Last fall, Haisley’s wife summoned police, telling them he had assaulted her; she subsequently obtained a protective order keeping him away from her and their children, according to Animals 24/7.

Whether any of this history is relevant to HSUS today is hard to know.

Says Kitty Block: “There are bad actors in every sector. My goal is to make sure that a bad actor is called out a lot sooner.”

“Accountability is key,” she added. “It starts at the top.”