Ousted David Wills
Jean Marx, 85, died after a prolonged illness on March 26, 2015 in Waterford, Michigan.
Posted her longtime friend and Michigan Humane Society colleague Eileen Liska-Stronczer in a personal tribute, “Her devoted surrogate daughter and estate executor, Bev Steffens-Claudio,” also long involved in humane work, “was holding her hand as she peacefully passed over. Jean served on the Michigan Humane Society’s board of directors for many years. When it became clear [in 1989] that [then-executive director] David Wills (despite his many brilliant leadership qualities) had allowed his personal demons to self-destruct, including taking down the MHS financially, she was one of the board members who stood strong and fought others to force him to resign. Jean also had her own animal charity, Animal Crafters,” founded in 1996, “with volunteers who made lovely hand-crafted items, usually with an animal theme, that were then sold to raise money to sterilize dogs and cats.”
While Marx had a long and distinguished career in mainstream humane work, it was her behind-the-scenes role in exposing Wills that had enduring influence within the cause.
Then-Humane Society of the U.S. president John Hoyt had in 1972 recommended protégé Wills to head the New Hampshire Humane Society. Wills left that organization in financial chaos in 1978, but Hoyt then recommended Wills to the Michigan Humane Society, where Wills became executive director in 1979.
At Michigan Humane, Wills assembled a team including many future longtime leaders in humane work, who made the organization a pioneer in promoting high-volume, low-cost dog and cat sterilization and promoting adoptions. Rumors of a possible merger of HSUS and Michigan Humane flew in 1987-1988. Wills was also widely viewed as Hoyt’s choice of potential successors. In 1989, however, Wills resigned from Michigan Humane when Marx in particular began inquiring into the disappearance of $1.6 million. A bookkeeper, Denise Hopkins, was eventually convicted of embezzling $56,000 of the missing sum. The rest remained unaccounted for.
Wills next founded the National Society for AnimalProtection, only to dissolve it when Hoyt brought him into HSUS as vice president for investigations and legislation. Wills was in 1995 accused of failing to repay NSAP-related loans totalling $57,411 in cash and valuables in separate lawsuits filed by William and Judith McBride, of Ortonville, Michigan, and Sandra LaBost, of Royal Oak, Michigan.
Simultaneously Marx was a key source and provided introductions to many other key sources for a multi-part nationally distributed investigative exposé of Wills’ activities authored by Merritt Clifton, now ANIMALS 24-7 editor. The series reached more than 28,000 animal welfare donors.
HSUS fired Wills in October 1995 after alleged misappropriation of HSUS funds surfaced in a lawsuit two staffers filed against him for alleged sexual harassment. Their suit purported that Wills had sexually assaulted at least 13 women. Their case was reportedly settled out of court in mid-1997.
Wills in 1999 pleaded guilty to embezzling $18,900 from HSUS; agreed to pay restitution of $67,800 to HSUS; and accepted a six-month jail sentence. HSUS and the State of Maryland agreeed to drop six other counts of embezzlement, alleging thefts of $84,128.
Wills was later associated with the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources, a “wise use” front funded chiefly by animal use industries.
Hoyt, meanwhile, was succeeded upon his retirement in 1996 by Paul Irwin, who had been HSUS senior vice president since 1975. Wills’ exit from HSUS cleared the path to the presidency for current HSUS president Wayne Pacelle after Irwin retired in May 2004.
Pacelle, who had been national director for the Fund for Animals from 1988 to 1994, then brokered the merger of HSUS with the Fund and several other organizational mergers that gave HSUS the size and structure it has today.
The Wills episode, meanwhile, influenced HSUS and several other national humane organizations to institute internal safeguards meant to prevent any similar situations.