Can you be a humane predator? You can if you’re Wayne Pacelle, the recently disgraced CEO who has been accused of attempting to entertain himself with masturbation in front of women. Predators “play an important role in maintaining ecosystem[s],” states the Humane Society of the United States. If female employees of the charity are to be believed, executives took those words a little too close to heart.
The charity is digging itself out of a major sexual harassment and intimidation scandal. Reports in national publications detailed allegations of years of predatory behavior by two top executives, CEO Wayne Pacelle and vice president Paul Shapiro — both of whom resigned earlier this year.
This may be only Chapter One in the scandal.
Here’s a quick recap: An employee alleged the CEO sexually harassed her, and a subsequent investigation found more complaints, plus several instances of women being offered financial settlements after they were retaliated against (generally you don’t collect unless you have a substantial case). Despite this, the dysfunctional board of directors who owed their seats to Mr. Pacelle voted to keep him on the job with one member saying, “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody?” Mr. Pacelle resigned the next day after public outcry and (finally) several board defections.
Now the question is how many other “humane” executives knew of and covered up this predatory behavior. A recent Washington Post piece notes new allegations against Mr. Pacelle as well as an allegation that the current COO Michael Markarian told a woman who complained about the CEO’s misbehavior toward her that her job was to “protect” Mr. Pacelle. (As of this writing, Mr. Markarian is still there.)
Meanwhile the charity’s story seems to be shifting. The Humane Society now says the board chairman Eric Bernthal requested the CEO resign on February 2 — providing no evidence of this — just hours after the chairman was defending the CEO and the board’s vote the previous night to keep him.
The charity also now says women bound by nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) can contact the general counsel for their release so they can share their stories. Yet this appears to be an empty gesture: A former employee says the charity would not let her out of an NDA she signed. Even the Weinstein Co. let women out of their NDAs.
These tactics are the polar opposite of being transparent and making atonement. And it’s also in the organization’s culture.
Back in the early 1990s, it emerged that the former president was living in a home — rent-free — that the charity bought from him. The charity had also reimbursed the treasurer for a vacation home in Maine. Ultimately nothing of real consequence happened: The president kept his job, and the treasurer became the next president.
A few years later, these two execs — both former ministers — reportedly officiated a wedding in Mexico for another Humane Society high-level staffer on a trip during which nonprofit funds were used. The staffer later got caught stealing money from the charity and sexually harassing staff.
The Humane Society of the United States is not the only major charity with a “Me Too” problem. The Red Cross reportedly helped an executive get a job with another charity despite knowing he had been accused of harassment and rape by subordinates. Oxfam employees allegedly had sex parties in Haiti with prostitutes in the months following an earthquake that devastated the country.
Charity boards apparently have an incentive to cover for their executive and sweep things under the rug. Questions remain in the Humane Society situation about whether Mr. Pacelle was given a severance package. Donors are also entitled to know what other senior executives knew about the harassment allegations, and when. But the board has not demonstrated any intention to come clean with their donors.
What’s needed is leadership. Charity oversight is often left to state attorneys general. In recent years, AGs have shown a willingness to go after charities that commit financial fraud by, for example, spending little of the money they raise on their mission (HSUS gives only 1 percent of their money to animal shelters).
Attorneys general must now provide broader oversight where charity boards will not step up on other issues where donor money is being used for everything but what the donor intended.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.