Ringling Circus Hired Private Eye To Infiltrate PETA, Fairfax Jury Told

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Ringling Bros. circus infiltrated animal rights groups, stole sensitive internal documents and illegally wiretapped circus opponents as part of a national conspiracy to disrupt animal rights groups, a lawyer told a Fairfax County jury yesterday.

The allegations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched a trial five years in the making. It also culminates a lengthy legal battle between PETA and Kenneth Feld, whose family has owned the circus for nearly 40 years.

During opening statements, PETA accused Feld of overseeing the espionage campaign against it and other animal rights organizations. Feld's attorney responded that infiltrating groups is not a crime, that PETA was not harmed by any alleged action by Feld or his employees and that Feld did not know of the operation or do anything illegal. Monitoring rights groups was necessary to protect the circus and its customers, Feld's attorney argued, and he noted that donations to PETA have risen, not fallen, since the start of the conspiracy.

Feld was sued by Norfolk-based PETA in Fairfax Circuit Court because the headquarters for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in Tysons Corner. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

PETA's first witness was a man with no love lost for either side: Charles F. Smith, former chief financial officer of Feld Entertainment and the immediate supervisor of the investigator who launched the covert probes into PETA and others. But in 1997, Feld fired Smith after he was arrested for also surveilling his girlfriend. Smith then sued Feld and tipped off some animal rights activists to the circus's clandestine operations, PETA attorney Philip J. Hirschkop said in his opening statement.

Smith acknowledged yesterday that he hired private investigator Richard Froemming to not only monitor such groups as PETA and the Performing Animal Welfare Society but also stage counter-demonstrations outside circuses where animal rights groups were protesting.

Smith said Froemming provided weekly reports to the top four officials in Feld's organization, including Feld for "a number of years." Smith said he, Feld and Froemming would meet occasionally to discuss Froemming's activities.

Froemming was later promoted to a vice president of the company, Smith said. Froemming originally was a defendant in the case, but he died in 2003.

Hirschkop told the jury that Smith told him in a phone call over the weekend that at one point Froemming had undercover operatives in 26 animal rights groups across the country. Smith said yesterday that he didn't know how many operatives Froemming had but then said he thought it was 16. Smith said he didn't know what, exactly, the operatives were doing.

Hirschkop said in his opening statement that Feld's operatives stole such documents as donor lists and strategy memos from animal rights groups, swiped private information including driver's license and Social Security numbers and illegally wiretapped circus opponents.

Some of the high-profile people targeted included Kevin Nealon, a former cast member of "Saturday Night Live," and Cleveland Amory, renowned author and co-founder of the Humane Society of the United States, Hirschkop said. "They followed [Amory] around as part of the conspiracy," Hirschkop said.

To combat legislation that would prohibit the use of exotic animals in the circus, Feld's representatives would lobby against such bills, Hirschkop said. Sometimes, he said, they did more. Hirschkop said Feld's operatives followed a California state senator who had sponsored such a bill, photographed him holding a check from an animal rights group and persuaded him to withdraw the bill.

When PETA first sued Feld in 2001 for the return of documents Smith had alerted them to, the group was amazed to receive its own internal financial statements, personnel information, phone lists and other documents that Feld had, Hirschkop said. He alleged that Froemming told Smith that Froemming's "chief duty was to destroy PETA." The group then filed its conspiracy suit.

Thomas J. Cawley, Feld's lead attorney, said the purpose of the lawsuit was for publicity. "There's no harm to PETA," Cawley said in his opening statement, noting that the organization's annual donations rose from $8 million in 1989 to $29 million in 2004.

"Ringling's people take very good care of their animals," Cawley said, adding that the circus has never been convicted of violating the federal animal welfare act.

Still, Cawley said, in the 1980s, animal rights activists began targeting the circus. He said they began by harassing customers outside shows and then disrupting performances. In the late 1980s, Cawley said, bomb threats were made to shows, to Feld headquarters and to circus trains traveling between cities.

Ringling had to defend itself, Cawley said. The company hired Froemming to improve security, at shows and on trains; to monitor possible protests; to plan counter-demonstrations; and to lobby against anti-circus legislation.

Cawley acknowledged that Ringling had PETA documents but said he didn't know how Froemming got them. He said "infiltration is not a crime, which is good because that's what PETA likes to do." He said Feld didn't authorize any infiltration and did not recall seeing any PETA documents.

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