A cat may have nine lives, but one notorious dog hopes he has at least two. Former Humane Society of the United States CEO Wayne Pacelle, who resigned in February after a number of women accused him of sexual harassment, reemerged on Washington’s lobbying scene last month.
Mr. Pacelle is aligned with a new political action committee called “Animal Wellness Action” that will focus on federal affairs related to animal agriculture.
What’s notable is that, unlike in other redemption stories, Mr. Pacelle has never apologized. In fact, he blamed a nebulous conspiracy for the allegations against him. The allegations against Mr. Pacelle — so far from five women — include that he assaulted one and offered to pleasure himself in front of another. Various other women have either quit or complained about Mr. Pacelle or some of his senior team who also preyed on young women staffers.
No doubt he has a sob story that he has been telling his donors behind the scenes: He was run out of a job by peasants with pitchforks and not given a chance to defend himself. Of course, Harvey Weinstein could argue the same.
The real lesson here is what happens with weak nonprofit leadership who are more interested in the adulation of their friends than corporate governance. The Humane Society of the United States board, for years, allowed Mr. Pacelle to raise funds using deceptive marketing. HSUS ads were full of dogs and cats, and the organization’s material promised to save animals.
Yet HSUS runs zero pet shelters, and gives only 1 percent of the money it raises to local shelters. It is not affiliated with similarly named humane societies that do run local shelters, though according to polling, many donors to HSUS are unaware of the distinction. Much of the funds are wasted on overhead; so much so that HSUS gets a “D” rating from CharityWatch.
It appears the board cared more about the ends — raising money to fund vegan and animal liberation campaigns against businesses — than the means.
Add to that the board’s bungling of the Pacelle #MeToo situation. Initially, after credible accusations emerged publicly, the board voted to keep Mr. Pacelle as CEO and to close a (very limited) internal investigation into the claims against him. Mr. Pacelle resigned only after donor outcry.
Following Mr. Pacelle’s departure, it took the board one month to put out a statement saying it believed sexual harassment victims, and even then, it didn’t mention Mr. Pacelle by name. One board member even blew off the situation, saying, “We didn’t hire him to be a choir boy.”
A handful of board members resigned, but the board is still stacked with Pacelle loyalists. So is the executive staff. The Washington Post reported in March that the COO, Mike Markarian, allegedly told a victim of harassment that her job was to protect the CEO.
However, news just materialized that Mr. Markarian will be retiring this month to pursue an unrelated interest in winemaking.
The timing certainly indicates there was internal pressure on him to leave. If true, the fact that the board would allow him to go out on his own terms, with his own spin, is another failure and once again demonstrates that the real priority is: Hoping the public has a short memory. However, all a donor needs to do is read the years of reviews from HSUS employees on Glassdoor to get a sense of the allegations of mismanagement under Mr. Pacelle, Mr. Markarian and others.
Meanwhile, HSUS continues to churn out fundraising appeal after fundraising appeal with cheap tchotchkes to boot, acting as if nothing’s wrong.
The word on the street back in February was that there were two dozen other victims of Mr. Pacelle’s unwanted affections who had yet to come forward. There are indications they may surface before too long. And that can’t be soon enough to clear the stink in the air at HSUS headquarters.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington D.C.