The owners of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s circus hired undercover agents, conspired and tried to ruin animal rights groups, according to an attorney involved in a civil jury trial that began yesterday in Fairfax County Circuit Court.
“It was a massive, classic conspiracy,” said Philip Hirschkop, an attorney for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a Norfolk-based animal rights group that filed the lawsuit in 2001.
Feld Entertainment Inc., which owns the circus and several other entertainment acts, began taking action against PETA and other animal rights organizations because the groups’ demonstrations were hurting ticket sales and income for the circuses, Mr. Hirschkop argued.
“There were concerns that some of the demonstrations get out of hand. … It was the adverse impact on our customers,” testified Charles Smith, former circus comptroller and former Feld vice president. “It would not be beneficial to us.”
The president of Vienna, Va.-based Feld Entertainment Inc., Kenneth Feld, sat silently through yesterday’s court proceedings, occasionally consulting with his attorneys.
Mr. Feld’s privately held company also produces “Disney on Ice” and produced the “Siegfried and Roy” show in Las Vegas before it shut down.
He clenched his jaw as Mr. Hirschkop described him as “one of the wealthiest men in the Washington area” who “runs a billion-dollar business.”
Mr. Feld fought unsuccessfully in pretrial motions to prevent disclosure to PETA of his financial statements.
If the jury of four women and five men agrees to PETA’s complaints, it could recommend that Mr. Feld and his associates pay PETA $1.3 million in legal fees, plus damages, Mr. Hirschkop said.
The lawsuit charges that the Feld company hired a former CIA operative to organize a spy operation to get inside PETA and take illegal recordings, confidential records and employee tax and medical records.
Tom Cawley, an attorney representing Mr. Feld, said there was no evidence among the 1,600 exhibits to be presented during the trial that incriminates his client.
“Mr. Feld did not do anything illegal,” Mr. Cawley argued. “The truth is that animal rights groups have threatened to harm the circuses.”
He emphasized that the U.S. Department of Agriculture regularly checks circus animals and that the circus has “never been found guilty of injuring animals.”
“All of a sudden, circuses are being attacked by animal rights activists,” Mr. Cawley argued, referring to several incidents in California. “This case makes no sense — unless they wanted publicity.”
More generally, PETA contends that Mr. Feld and his attorneys improperly impeded the lawsuit on multiple fronts. The suit was originally filed in Fairfax County in May 2001, but proceeded at a snail’s pace through the pretrial discovery process.
In August the judge sanctioned six of Mr. Feld’s attorneys for contempt of court and interfering with a deposition. In December a judge issued sanctions against Mr. Feld for failing to turn over evidence.
Yesterday, Mr. Hirschkop alluded in opening statements to the consulting work done for Mr. Feld by Clair George, the CIA’s former covert operations director.
Mr. George was convicted of perjury for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal but was later pardoned by the first President George Bush.
Mr. George gave a deposition in an unrelated case and acknowledged he did consulting work for Mr. Feld and helped oversee surveillance of various animal rights groups.
Mr. Cawley told the jury that the vast majority of Mr. George’s work for Mr. Feld had nothing to do with surveillance of animal rights groups.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks.
The circus is scheduled to perform at the D.C. Armory from March 21 to March 26, and at MCI Center from March 29 to April 2. It then moves to the Patriot Center in Fairfax for shows from April 5 to April 16.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.