HSUS CEO resigns amid sexual harassment claims

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Wayne Pacelle resigned Feb. 2 as chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States after an investigation into claims of sexual harassment and calls for him to step down.

The HSUS board of directors has named Kitty Block, an attorney who is president of the Humane Society's international affiliate, as acting president and CEO, according to a Feb. 2 HSUS press release.

Turmoil within the HSUS leadership first came to light with a Jan. 25 story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that reported Pacelle was the subject of an internal investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct. The animal protection group's board of directors confirmed that it had hired a Washington law firm Dec. 20, 2017, to conduct an investigation after the Humane Society received an anonymous complaint about Pacelle's behavior.

"A special committee of the board is overseeing the investigation and reviewing its findings," according to a Jan. 25 statement by Rick Bernthal, chair of HSUS' board. "We do not have information that can be shared regarding the investigation, its findings, or board actions at this time. We believe it is important to deal in substance and not rumors, and our process is designed to ensure confidentiality and fair consideration of these issues."

A Jan. 29 Washington Post story then reported that the internal investigation had identified three complaints of sexual harassment by Pacelle and found that senior female leaders said their warnings about his behavior were ignored. The Post story cited two anonymous sources and a Humane Society memo describing the investigation. Pacelle has denied the three allegations.

"The investigators, who interviewed 33 witnesses, identified complaints from a former intern who said Pacelle had kissed her against her will in 2005, a former employee who said he asked to masturbate in front of her in 2006 and a former employee who said he stopped by her office late one night in 2012 and asked her to salsa dance with him," according to the Post.

After a seven-hour meeting, the HSUS board chair released another statement Feb. 2 saying the board reviewed the information from the investigation and determined that there was not sufficient evidence to remove Pacelle from his position as CEO.

"As one example, there were several complaints about pay-offs or settlements to hush people about sexual harassment," Bernthal's statement said. "Like many employers, we often offer severance payments to employees who are leaving or whose positions are eliminated. They are often accompanied by non-disclosure agreements especially for positions dealing with confidential information such as donor data. This has happened hundreds of times within our organization, and it is customary for almost any major business. The Board concluded that there was no motivation behind severance agreements to silence women who had spoken up or raised concerns."

But the backlash was immediate. Several donors had called for Pacelle's ouster, and one, Greenbaum Foundation's Jim Greenbaum, said he wouldn't be renewing his Humane Society donation. In addition, seven of the 31 board members resigned in protest, including Marsha Perelman, former president and CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo; two of them have since returned

Finally, the HSUS announced that it had accepted Pacelle's resignation later on Feb. 2. He had served in this capacity since 2004 and previously served for 10 years as the organization's chief political and communications officer.

As CEO, Pacelle expanded the organization's focus beyond the protection of cats and dogs. The HSUS began targeting puppy mills, dogfighting, soring of horses, and some industrial farming practices, according to its website biography on Pacelle. He orchestrated the passage of more than 1,000 state and federal laws. In particular, Pacelle favored the use of state ballot initiatives rather than legislative lobbying to enact new protections including the outlawing of cockfighting, bear baiting, and other practices. In 2008, he led the effort to pass Proposition 2 in California, which mandated changes to livestock housing practices.

 The nonprofit also grew under Pacelle's watch through a series of mergers, affiliations, and corporate partnerships. He helped to form the Humane Society Legislative Fund in 2006, and soon after that, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

The HSUS has drawn criticism for misleading donors into thinking that their donations directly support local animal shelters, when HSUS has no affiliation with or control over local humane societies.

The Humane Society had more than $210 million in net assets at the end of 2016, according to its latest nonprofit filings.