Ousted by donor & staff rejection of board vote of confidence
WASHINGTON D.C.––Kitty Block, previously president of the Humane Society of the U.S. subsidiary Humane Society International, on February 2, 2018 ascended to the HSUS presidency.
Block became interim HSUS president following the surprise resignation of 13-year president Wayne Pacelle, less than 24 hours after he had apparently survived a board-funded investigation of sexual harassment allegations against him.
Chronicle of Philanthropy
Conducted by the Morgan Lewis law firm, perhaps best known for representing U.S. President Donald Trump, the investigation was begun in December 2017, according to Chronicle of Philanthropy writer Marc Gunther, who made it public on January 25, 2018.
Gunther had in November 2016 flatteringly profiled Pacelle, and Pacelle had acknowledged him for it in his daily blog, but when Gunther looked into the sexual harassment allegations, he told ANIMALS 24-7, the situation was “Worse than I thought it was,” necessitating exposure.
HSUS board stopped investigation
Morgan Lewis personnel reportedly interviewed 33 witnesses, including three women who issued specific complaints against Pacelle, and found that three other women believed to have complained about sexual harassment had left HSUS after accepting cash settlements and signing non-disclosure agreements.
But the HSUS board stopped the investigation on February 1, 2018, touching off a string of board and staff resignations. At least a dozen donors, whose 2017 contributions amounted to as much as $1 million, indicated before midnight on February 1, 2018 that they would withdraw their support of HSUS pending a leadership regime change.
“We believe the women”
Memes stating “We believe the women” appeared on the social media pages of many current and former HSUS staff, donors, and volunteers.
Reported Danielle Paquette of the Washington Post, who followed the Chronicle of Philanthropy and ANIMALS 24-7 in exposing the allegations against Pacelle, “The announcement of Pacelle’s departure comes one day after the charity’s board voted to retain the chief executive, and two hours after the board chairman [Eric Bernthal] dismissed the allegations against him as lacking ‘credible evidence.’
“In a seven-hour conference call,” Paquette recounted, “board members voted 17-9 with two abstaining,” and three members not taking part, “to retain Pacelle at the helm. Seven board members quit the organization after the vote to protest the decision.”
“Two board members apologized to Pacelle”
Continued Paquette, “The call did not hear from the lawyer who conducted the investigation into Pacelle’s behavior, three people familiar with the matter said.”
This attorney, Grace Speights, heads the Morgan Lewis labor and employment practice section.
Pacelle “spoke to the conference call for about 10 minutes,” Paquette said, “describing his achievements and denying the allegations of sexual harassment. Two board members apologized to Pacelle during the call, three people familiar with the matter said.”
“We didn’t hire him to be a choir boy”
Board member and Hollywood, California interior designer Erika Brunson, 83, resigned immediately after Pacelle’s resignation. Defending Pacelle to the last, Brunson had in various media statements called the allegations against him “ridiculous” and “nonsense,” said Pacelle had “done nothing wrong,” told fellow board members that “We didn’t hire him to be a choir boy,” asked “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody?”, contended that “Women should be able to take care of themselves,” and asserted that “We’d have no chief executive officers and no executives of American companies if none of them had affairs.”
Some of the other chief executive officers and executives of American companies who resigned from the HSUS board on February 1, 2018, and/or withdrew financial pledges, clearly disagreed. Among the board resignees with high-powered corporate connections were former Altria Group executive Buffy Linehan, former Citi financial group managing director and head of public finance David Brownstein, and Ridgeback Communications chief executive Andrew Weinstein, who had chaired the HSUS board finance committee.
The other board resignees were author Suzy Welch, former Philadelphia Zoo chief executive Marsha Perelman, Harvard FXB Center for Health & Human Rights director Jennifer Leaning, and “Mutts” cartoonist Patrick McDonnell.
Major donors renouncing support of HSUS included Greenbaum Foundation founder Jim Greenbaum, Oregon investor Nicole Brodeur, and Rachel Perman, director of charitable giving and engagement at the vegetarian food making company Tofurky.
Ahead of the HSUS conference call board meeting, anthropologist Barbara J. King quit the editorial board of the HSUS-sponsored scholarly journal Animal Sentience due, she said, to “issues of sexual harassment endured by women working at HSUS.”
“Betrayal of trust”
Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for HSUS from 2006 to 2014, and a contracted lobbyist since then, posted to Facebook shortly after the February 1, 2018 conference call among the HSUS board members, “My contract with The Humane Society of the United States expired at midnight last night. I provided confidential written advice to the Board of Directors that appears to have been ignored. I will not work with The HSUS again until there is a complete leadership change.”
Added Fearing in an email to The New York Times, “Closing the investigation feels like a betrayal of trust.”
“Promoted to keep me in my place”
Posted Nancy Lawson, an HSUS employee from 2008 to the end of 2014, rising to the rank of vice president two years before her departure, “I like to choose my words carefully. It’s one of the reasons I was routinely drowned out by louder, deeper, and distinctly baritone voices at my former workplace, where I was promoted to the position of vice president to essentially keep me in my place. Let’s give her more money and status, and maybe she’ll shut up and be a part of the team.
“I didn’t shut up,” Lawson said. “Because that team was often dysfunctional, dismissive, sexist, and abusive. Like so many of my colleagues, I was and remain committed to the cause, committed to the animals, committed to the people who work on their behalf every day, and committed to the organization. But the place was in trouble, and I wanted to help fix it. I wanted the smart, talented people around me to gain more of a voice.
“That goal would prove impossible because, in spite of my own high-level position, I wasn’t even given a seat at the table from the start.”
“Culture of hero worship”
Continued Lawson, “There is subtle harassment and blatant harassment. It all stems from a culture of hero worship that feeds on lack of accountability, and it all combines to take away the power and voices of women. For those women who are speaking up online to say that they advanced in the organization based on their merit and ‘not because I’m pretty,’” Lawson said, that attitude has helped perpetuate these behaviors. Just because you didn’t have the same experience does not mean it didn’t exist. Don’t make the mistake of assuming your experience is representative of the experiences of others. That’s not at all wise or humane.
“To the anti-animal folks who have taken this as an opportunity to capitalize on your inhumane views with glee,” Lawson added, “you are also behaving in a sexist and deplorable manner. Because you are acting at the expense of many, many women––and good men––who have devoted their lives to making the world a better place for all.”
“Dropped HSUS as a client”
Among the men who spoke out was former HSUS vice president for animal protection litigation Jonathan R. Lovvorn, one of the first to post the “I believe the women” meme.
Lovvorn came to HSUS from the Fund for Animals in 2005, after Pacelle brokered the merger of the two organizations. Pacelle was national director for the Fund for Animals, 1989-1994, before jumping to HSUS to spend 10 years as vice president for legislation, prior to becoming president in 2004.
Lovvorn said he had “been on extended leave since August of 2017,” and “dropped HSUS as a client immediately after the board vote” of February 1, 2018.
“Josh Skipworth, the HSUS state director in Iowa, said he initially decided to quit the organization after the board appeared to prioritize Pacelle’s fundraising talents over a toxic workplace environment for women,” but reconsidered after Pacelle resigned, reported Paquette of the Washington Post.
National Organization of Women
About 80% of the HSUS donor base are women, as are twelve of the top 19 HSUS staff members, nine of the 14 current HSUS corporate officers, and 14 of 20 members of the HSUS National Council advisory board.
Fifteen of the 31 members of the HSUS board of directors were female before the recent resignations. Currently eleven of 23 members of the HSUS board of directors are women.
All of this attracted the notice of National Organization for Women president Toni Van Pelt.
“Fire Wayne Pacelle. Do it NOW.”
“Like Donald Trump, HSUS is engaged in a cover up in plain sight,” Van Pelt charged on February 2, 2018, shortly before Pacelle resigned. “Instead of trying to enable a sexual abuser, they should dismiss him. Instead of making excuses, they should be making reparations. Instead of silencing or attacking women who have suffered abuse, and those who defend them, HSUS should change its own culture.
“HSUS needs to know this,” Van Pelt continued. “Women are watching. We know when a charity deserves our support, and when it fails the most basic obligations of trust. The Humane Society of the U.S. has no humanity. Fire Wayne Pacelle. Do it now.”’
HSUS board rejected the evidence
Continuing to defend Pacelle, HSUS board chair Eric Bernthal wrote to staff shortly before Pacelle quit that, “The board reviewed the information assembled and determined that there was not sufficient evidence to remove Wayne Pacelle from his position as CEO.
“Many of the allegations were explosive in nature, and reading or hearing about them is a shock to anyone. It was to us, too,” claimed Bernthal. “But when we sifted through the evidence presented, we did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence.”
Further, Bernthal said, “The board concluded that there was no motivation behind severance agreements to silence women who had spoken up or raised concerns.”
“Going to assess where I go”
Said Pacelle to New York Times writers Julie Bosman, Matt Stevens, and Jonah Engel Bromwich, as the furor over the board decision to retain him intensified, “I’m going to take stock of everyone’s opinion and assess where I go and where the organization goes from here. I think leadership changes at organizations are often very healthy and renewing,” Pacelle hinted, “and I’m going to talk with staff and board members and find the best course that [contributes] to our mission of fighting for all animals.”
Pacelle released his resignation letter later in the day.
“Our mission depends on unity”
“Yesterday,” Pacelle opened, “the HSUS board of directors voted to affirm my continued service as president and CEO. The vote was not unanimous and half a dozen directors [Pacelle undercounted] resigned in its wake. That division among our board members is a cause for concern for the organization.
“Our mission depends on unity,” Pacelle said. “For that reason, I am recommending that the board launch a search for a successor. I am resigning, effective immediately, to allow that process to move forward expeditiously and to put aside any distractions, in the best interests of all parties.”
Who is Kitty Block?
Pacelle in conclusion introduced Kitty Block as his interim successor.
Recited Bernthal, “Ms. Block has served at HSUS since 1992. In 2007 she was promoted to vice president of Humane Society International, later to senior vice president, and last year became president of this affiliate, overseeing all HSI international campaigns and programs. Ms. Block received a law degree from The George Washington University in 1990 and a bachelor’s degree in communications and philosophy from the University of New Hampshire in 1986.”
Neither Pacelle nor Bernthal mentioned, however, that Block made her first mark at HSUS by joining with two other women in filing a 1995 lawsuit accusing then-HSUS vice president of investigations David Wills of sexual harassment and embezzling. Fired by HSUS in November 1995, and convicted of embezzling from HSUS in 1996, Wills responded to the sexual harassment case with a countersuit, leading to an out-of-court settlement on undisclosed terms in 1998.
Working thereafter in animal use industries, Wills has been facing trial in Texas since 2015, in a repeatedly delayed case, for allegedly trafficking a nine-year-old girl for purposes of sexual exploitation.
“Enablers will have to go”
Said former HSUS executive Marc Paulhus, who had resigned from HSUS in protest of Wills’ conduct, “A capable woman was named as the interim CEO.”
But, Paulhus added, “A good deal of housekeeping remains, and some enablers to unacceptable behavior will have to go.”
“Will be cleaning up mess for years”
Concluded Humane Farming Association founder Brad Miller, who had clashed with Pacelle throughout his HSUS tenure, “After warning animal activists for years about Pacelle’s character and harmful policies, it is obviously gratifying to finally see him dragged kicking and screaming out of HSUS’s corporate suites.
“Sadly, this comes far too late for the women Pacelle has victimized, the donors he has deceived — and the millions of animals who now suffer as a result of his corrupt deal-making with the egg industry, meat retailers, SeaWorld, and other exploiters of animals. Animal advocates will be cleaning up Pacelle’s mess for years to come,” Miller predicted.
Few observers would discount, however, the possibility that Pacelle will soon re-emerge in an executive position at another animal advocacy organization, or a for-profit organization doing related work, for instance lobbying or promoting non-meat food products.