Last week two top executives of the Humane Society of the United States were exposed as alleged sexual predators. The Washington Post outlined a series of complaints against CEO Wayne Pacelle and that the organization had paid settlements presumably with donor money to women who were retaliated against.
Additionally, Politico revealed that a number of women had complained about inappropriate sexual behavior of Humane Society vice president and Pacelle friend Paul Shapiro who encouraged female staff to accept sex with donors. Mr. Shapiro merely got a slap on the wrist.
Last week the board refused to fire Mr. Pacelle, who blamed a “coordinated attack” against him. By whom? The woman who said Mr. Pacelle offered to masturbate in front of her, or the woman who said Mr. Pacelle rubbed his genitals against her? Or one of the others?
The resulting mess — Mr. Pacelle finally resigned on Friday, but refused to offer a hint of remorse — is actually just the latest in a string of scandals at what may be America’s most corrupt charity.
It starts and ends with a lack of accountability and ethics with the board and upper management. Regarding sexual harassment, the board and its chair, former Latham & Watkins partner Rick Bernthal, showed not just gross ineptitude but an attempt to sweep things under the carpet.
An investigation by an outside law firm found that some executives had warned Mr. Pacelle of his behavior years ago. The investigation only interviewed 33 people, even though Mr. Pacelle had overseen hundreds of staff and interns in his time. After a few embarrassing disclosures leaked to the media, the board abruptly aborted the investigation and voted to keep him. One board member predictably offered, “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody?” (Seven board members, about a quarter of the board, resigned in protest.)
Almost unnoticed last week, a professional fundraiser whose clients include HSUS was fined $250,000 by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading fundraising. No surprise. For years, HSUS advertising has been one giant bait and switch scheme. Its ads are full of cats and dogs, yet only 1 percent of the money it raises is given to local pet shelters.
HSUS is not affiliated with local humane societies, despite the similar names, and does not run a single pet shelter. The HSUS board has allowed this deception to occur despite their own internal surveys indicating donors are unaware of the 1 percent rip-off. (I always encourage people to support their local shelters directly.)
The hundreds of millions has instead been diverted to aggressive anti-business lobbying campaigns to attack agriculture, pet stores, circuses, zoos, aquariums, and others who own animals. It has employed dozens of lawyers who concoct lawsuits against farms, ranches and others. The board employed Mr. Pacelle despite his past admissions including, “If I had my personal view perhaps that might take hold. In fact, I don’t want to see another cat or dog born.” HSUS is PETA with suits and deodorant.
Mr. Pacelle’s successor, acting CEO Kitty Block, like other HSUS staff, is a former PETA employee. There is little doubt she shares Mr. Pacelle’s sentiments. And with the board defections it is probable the remaining apologists for Mr. Pacelle will continue to mimic his agenda.
The board also failed to hold HSUS leadership accountable for a stunning, $11 million settlement of an anti-racketeering lawsuit. HSUS was sued after it was caught secretly paying a witness who lied in court proceedings. Mr. Pacelle himself signed at least one check in this scheme. Yet after this multimillion-dollar legal rebuke, the board appeared to take no action to hold executives accountable.
The board has also sat by while HSUS has put more than $50 million into offshore accounts in the Caribbean instead of using that money to help animals. (The figure comes from HSUS’ latest tax return.)
It’s not just the board of HSUS that has failed. Charity evaluators have repeatedly failed to live up to their missions. The Better Business Bureau still “accredits” HSUS. (Conflict alert: the BBB takes money from those they accredit.) Charity Navigator claims that 74 percent of HSUS’ budget is spent on programs. The real number is closer to 50 percent, according to HSUS’ latest tax return. Much of the rest goes to big salaries, pension benefits and raising more money.
The board members and senior staff who enabled Mr. Pacelle and the culture of harassment and deception are still there, and they show no remorse or hint of real change. Any business or politician who aligns with HSUS is tying their brand to a culture of harassment, cover-up, unaccountability, and deception.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.