Circus Exec Cleared in Spy Case

A woman painted as a tiger protests the use of exotic animals by Ringling Bros. in New York's Times Square last week.
A woman painted as a tiger protests the use of exotic animals by Ringling Bros. in New York's Times Square last week. (By Mike Segar -- Reuters)
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Fairfax County jury found yesterday that Ringling Bros. did not harm or conspire against an animal right's group that showed that the circus had been spying on and stealing documents from them and other activists for years.

The jury ruled in favor of Kenneth J. Feld, the patriarch of the Ringling empire, in two suits filed by the Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose attorneys appealed to the jury's "moral outrage" for Ringling's various espionage efforts against it from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.

"It vindicates what we do," Feld said. "We spend our time putting shows together, trying to make families happy-- that's what we do."

PETA general counsel Jeff Kerr said the trial had "exposed the sordid underbelly of the circus, and let patrons know what their money's really going to support behind the scenes."

During the nine-day trial, Ringling's internal documents showed that the circus hired private investigators who infiltrated several animal rights groups across the country, obtained credit card and other personal data and stole stacks of confidential papers, such as donor lists and strategy memos.

But Feld's attorneys pointed out that PETA's donations have continued to rise, despite Ringling's actions, and that the circus did nothing untoward with the purloined documents. Feld, who was the sole defendant in the suit when the jury began deliberations Tuesday, said he had little or no role in the espionage.

Feld, whose family bought the circus in 1967, spent two days on the stand telling the jury in detail how he helped create and produce such entertainment hallmarks as the magicians Siegfried & Roy, Disney on Ice and the historic 1990 Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas heavyweight title fight, in addition to overseeing the circus.

But when it came to spying on animal rights groups -- including the Performing Animal Welfare Society, In Defense of Animals and the Elephant Alliance -- receiving weekly reports from his top investigator and disposing of stacks of surveillance tapes, Feld said he had little memory or no knowledge of what was going on.

"It wasn't something I was focused on," Feld said of the undercover operations against PETA and others. "It wasn't something that generated top-line business, which is what I focused on."

The jury had two main issues to consider:

Did Feld really not know what efforts his people were taking, including a private investigator whom he paid $8.8 million over 10 years?

And even if Feld did know, was PETA really harmed by what the Fairfax-based company did?

After nine hours of deliberation, the jury decided there was no harm. It also rejected a countersuit by Feld that PETA's lawsuit was abusive.

After another animal rights group sued Feld and learned that the circus had boxes of various groups' internal documents, PETA sued Feld in 2001 seeking its papers. Upon discovering the depth of information taken, PETA filed another suit alleging conspiracy to damage or destroy PETA and other animal rights groups.

Weekly reports by Richard Froemming, a former small-time private investigator in Northern Virginia, informed top Ringling executives that he was placing people inside animal rights groups to monitor their activities. By the 1990s, Froemming was being paid more than $1 million annually, court documents show. He died in 2003.

An affidavit written by former CIA deputy director Clair E. George, later hired as a consultant to Feld, said that he reviewed Froemming's reports and discussed them with Feld. Feld said he didn't remember any such discussions, and he never thought Froemming was doing anything illegal.

Feld, former chief financial officer Charles F. Smith and another private investigator, Steven Kendall, all testified that they feared the damage PETA and others might do to circus animals or patrons. Philip Hirschkop, PETA's longtime lawyer, said no violence by PETA against the circus was ever shown.

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