CEO Wayne Pacelle resigns from HSUS amid allegations of sexual misconduct

CEO Wayne Pacelle resigns from HSUS amid allegations of sexual misconduct

Ambiguous results of initial investigation prompt resignations from board; long-term fallout for animal welfare organization still unclear.
Feb 20, 2018

A major shakeup in leadership at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) prompted by allegations of sexual misconduct against CEO Wayne Pacelle and other leaders has rattled animal welfare circles, but its impact on the organization’s overall mission and future remains unknown.

Allegations of sexual misconduct by Pacelle against female employees extending back more than decade were first made public in January, and rumblings of other indiscretions at the organization are rising in its aftermath. Pacelle, a sometimes polarizing figure in terms of support in the veterinary community, resigned in early February, but the damage may have already been done.

A look back on Pacelle’s career

Pacelle’s work in animal welfare began early—he was appointed executive director of The Fund for Animals at 23—and he joined HSUS in 1994 as a lobbyist and spokesperson. He was installed as CEO of HSUS in 2004 and was involved in the passage of more than 25 federal animal welfare statutes during his tenure.

At times, Pacelle’s views and his efforts with HSUS conflicted with the views of professional veterinary organizations like the AVMA, particularly on food animal issues. Pacelle highlighted these differences when he helped HSUS launch an alternative to AVMA, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA), in 2008.

The allegations

The HSUS first acknowledged the sexual misconduct allegations against Pacelle in a Jan. 25 announcement of an internal investigation. HSUS’s board of directors said the law firm Morgan Lewis was investigating the legitimacy of workplace misconduct claims against Pacelle, but the organization shared no further details about the investigation at that time.

On Feb. 2, Rick Bernthal, chair of the HSUS board, elaborated on the investigation, stating that an HSUS staff member had complained about inappropriate actions by Pacelle but that the Morgan Lewis review had revealed insufficient evidence to remove him from his leadership post.

“Many of the allegations were explosive in nature, and reading or hearing about them is a shock to anyone. It was to us, too,” Bernthal wrote in a statement from HSUS. “But when we sifted through the evidence presented, we did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence.”

This announcement sparked anger in the public and among some on HSUS’s own board, with several board members reportedly resigning in protest of a contentious Feb. 1 vote to keep Pacelle on. Pacelle resigned on Feb. 2, effective immediately, and attorney and president of Humane Society International Kitty Block was named acting president and CEO of HSUS in place of Pacelle.

“We are most grateful to Kitty for stepping forward to lead the organization as we continue to advance our mission, which has never been more important,” Bernthal wrote in a follow-up statement after Pacelle’s resignation.

Moving forward and future fallout

HSUS would not answer additional specific questions from dvm360 magazine on the allegations against Pacelle or whether a search for a permanent CEO was planned.

For now, HSUS is simply deferring to a prepared statement from Kitty Block in which she revealed her own past experiences with sexual harassment at HSUS and a commitment to addressing and preventing similar experiences for employees going forward.

“I thank the brave women who have come forward. I believe them. Because of their courage, we are in a better place as an organization,” Kitty Block writes in her statement. “If others have concerns, we want to hear them and have channels for doing so. If they are reported, I pledge that we will investigate them fairly and thoroughly.”

Whether the actions of HSUS are enough to protect the support of its donors remains to be seen.

Jim Greenbaum, founder and managing director of the human and animal advocacy group The Greenbaum Foundation, has been outspoken on his public Facebook page about the allegations against Pacelle and the fallout from the board’s initial vote to keep him as CEO. Having made a $100,000 donation to HSUS last year, Greenbaum says he plans to weigh his decision about future donations carefully based on how HSUS responds to this crisis.

“I will give considerable weight to what actions are taken—or not taken—to ensure both a healthy work environment and a reconstituted board of directors comprised of individuals capable of overseeing such a large complex organization,” Greenbaum told dvm360 magazine, noting that he made this sentiment clear in an email to Bernthal as well.

HSUS declined to address whether other donations have been impacted by Pacelle’s departure.

Impact on HSVMA

Gary Block, DVM, MS, DACVIM, board president for the now 9,000-member-strong HSVMA, says he doesn’t anticipate the fallout from HSUS’s turmoil will negatively impact the veterinary community or reach HSVMA, since the two organizations—while affiliated—operate independently. Gary Block says HSVMA had no knowledge of the investigation or its outcome prior to news of the allegations being made public by HSUS and in the mainstream media.

As far as how HSUS will recover from the fallout of Pacelle’s departure, Gary Block says, to his knowledge, as many as eight HSUS board members may have resigned. At least two have returned, and two are in negotiations to return, he says, although HSUS did not offer confirmation.

Gary Block says HSVMA has its own board and will continue to work toward improving animal welfare. As a veterinarian-facing organization, HSVMA has not appeared to have, and hopefully will continue to be free from, repercussions from what is happening at HSUS, he adds. Going forward, Block says he hopes leadership for HSUS will continue the work Pacelle started in many arenas and with the same charisma and passion. He would, however, like to see a veterinarian, and perhaps a woman, leader for the organization.

“In a way, it’s very sad because Wayne was obviously very articulate and a passionate advocate for animals, and an incredible public speaker. But—and this is my opinion and my opinion only—if the allegations are in any way, shape or form true, there was really no other choice,” Gary Block says. “Clearly a change was needed with this type of allegation. To hear that anyone in an upper-level management position was potentially taking advantage or creating an asymmetric power dynamic, that’s disappointing in any organization.”

Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former reporter for dvm360 magazine.

Wayne Pacelle

HSUS and all animals have lost a genius that cannot be replaced. Hopefully, the organization can continue to build on his achievements. I have worked with HSUS for many years. Wayne's accomplishments were amazing;far above the intellectual comprehension of many people. Mr. P. lead a great ballot initiative in my state. To date, this law has saved the lives of (literally) millions of animals.
He has a unique combination of characteristics that are hard to find, especially in his field.
Heaven knows, and as I witnessed, there were scores of women who would have voluntarily dated him(and did from what I hear). Why he needed to bother women who weren't interested......I don't get. Go figure. We all lost.

Wayne Pacelle resigns from HSUS

Even with Pacelle (officially) gone, his enablers remain in firm control and a culture of secrecy and corruption still looms at the top of HSUS. Also, keep in mind that when Pacelle supposedly "left" the Fund for Animals, he still remained in control via his handpicked executive staff and board members. That dynamic still exists at HSUS with Mike Markarian, Holly Hazard, Heidi Prescott, Josh Balk and all the board members who voted to shut down the sexual harassment investigation and to keep Pacelle in place.

Wayne Pacelle’s misconduct at HSUS goes far beyond sexual harassment allegations. He has, as a matter of routine, lied about his accomplishments and used charitable resources to publicize false claims that elevated his stature and fostered the kind of hero worship that has been so pervasive. This put the women he interacted with at a tremendous disadvantage when considering whether or not to report inappropriate behavior. His fabricated victories enabled his predatory ways by attracting followers and by insulating him from accountability and exposure.

Pacelle generated tremendous publicity for himself when he announced a legislative deal with United Egg Producers, which he claimed would “outlaw battery cages nationwide.” In reality, that deal would have kept laying hens confined inside egg factory cages in perpetuity.

Facing litigation that included charges of bribery, money laundering, and obstruction of justice (a check signed by Pacelle was apparently used to pay a witness who had repeatedly lied under oath), HSUS settled a massive RICO lawsuit by paying the owners of Ringling Brothers Circus millions of dollars of charitable donations that should have been used to protect animals. That’s in addition to all the money in legal fees that were paid out. This use of charitable dollars – to cover the improper conduct of Pacelle and other executive staff – was not unlike the misuse of funds used to essentially buy the silence of women allegedly sexually harassed at HSUS.
Details here:

In the biggest blunder in animal rights history, Pacelle squandered over $10 million dollars on Proposition 2, the botched 2008 initiative that resulted in millions of laying hens being subjected to more than nine years (and counting) of preventable cage confinement. Nevertheless, Pacelle’s continuously repeated claim that he had “outlawed” battery cages in California has been his biggest claim to fame. Pacelle and the egg industry have now introduced yet another ballot initiative in California. This new initiative would declare battery cages legal in California for additional years and would forever allow the egg industry to provide hens with as little as one square foot of floor space per bird.
Details here:

None of the above would have been possible without the complicity of the HSUS executive staff and members of the board of directors. Just as Pacelle provided cover for Paul Shapiro, HSUS’s senior staff and board members have covered for Pacelle’s behavior. There needs to be a clean sweep.