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Humane Society CEO resigns after sexual harassment allegations

U.S. Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle and his dog Lily at work in Washington on Aug. 31, 2016. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Humane Society of the United States chief executive Wayne Pacelle resigned Friday amid sexual harassment complaints and a backlash by major donors.

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 dismissed the allegations against him as lacking “credible evidence.”

The board named Kitty Block, an attorney who is president of Humane Society’s international affiliate, as acting chief executive.

“The last few days have been very hard for our entire family of staff and supporters,” board chairman Rick Bernthal said in a statement. “We are profoundly grateful for Wayne’s unparalleled level of accomplishments and service to the cause of animal protection and welfare.”

Block’s appointment ends a tumultuous week at the Humane Society after an internal investigation identified three complaints of sexual harassment against Pacelle, and found senior women who said he had ignored warnings to change his conduct.

In an emailed statement to staff, Pacelle praised Block as a “fitting” replacement and a “fabulous” advocate for animal rights.

“I am resigning, effective immediately . . . to put aside any distractions, in the best interests of all parties,” he wrote.

The results of the investigation, first reported in The Washington Post on Monday, led to a revolt by major donors and a walkout threat from employees, and set the stage for a contentious board meeting on Thursday.

In a seven-hour conference call Thursday, board members voted 17 to 9 with two abstaining to retain Pacelle at the helm. Seven board members quit the organization after the vote to protest the decision.

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

The Humane Society later released an additional statement announcing Pacelle would be leaving, and that Block would be taking his place.

Block, who starts her new role immediately, is a Humane Society veteran. In 1995, when she was working as a legal investigator, she and a female co-worker accused a superior of sexual harassment, according to a 1996 report in The Washington Post. The official was later fired.

Block continued to rise through the ranks, overseeing international policy work related to trade, and holding executive roles before she was named acting chief executive Friday.

In voting to retain Pacelle on Thursday, a majority of board members calculated that his exit would do more damage to the nonprofit than keeping him in the post, according to three people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.

“We have a lot of animals to protect — and staff to protect,” Jeffrey Arciniaco, president of the South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale and a board member since 2009, told The Post on Friday.

Aricinaco would not comment on his vote or the internal discussion, but he said members made the call to retain Pacelle only after much deliberation: “We looked at the facts. We have a lot of great employees, and we made a very careful decision.”

The choice to keep Pacelle broke with a recent pattern of removing leaders accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Over the past several months, high-profile figures have stepped down or been fired, including Roger Ailes of Fox News, Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein and several television personalities.

The internal investigation by a law firm hired by the Humane Society also found that senior female leaders said they had warned Pacelle against his conduct with little effect.

Pacelle denied all the allegations to The Post on Monday.

“I absolutely deny any suggestion that I did anything untoward,” he said.

He was not available for comment Friday.

The inquiry found the nonprofit had offered settlements to three former employees who said they were dismissed or demoted after telling their co-workers about Pacelle’s alleged misconduct.

In his earlier statement, Bernthal suggested board members were not persuaded by the allegations against Pacelle. He said severance payments for departing employees were “customary for almost any major business.”

A number of prominent supporters had said they would end their relationship with the Humane Society to protest Thursday’s vote. A group of employees had said they were organizing a walkout at the organization’s headquarters in Washington next week.

Pacelle, who joined the Humane Society in 1994, became chief executive in 2004.

Pacelle had spread the nonprofit’s reach, board members argued during the call, according to people familiar with the matter. Over the last decade, the charity has grown from $160 million in assets to $210 million under Pacelle’s leadership, according to the latest IRS filings.

During the call, Bernthal invited all board members to speak. However, the call did not hear from the lawyer who conducted the investigation into Pacelle’s behavior, three people familiar with the matter said.

The chief executive also spoke to the conference call for about 10 minutes, describing his achievements and denying 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,” Erika Brunson, an interior designer who left the board in the wake of Pacelle’s departure, told The Post she said on the call. “We hired him to do a good job for the animals.”

Brunson added: “Our mission is to help animals, not to investigate Wayne’s allegations from years ago,” she said Friday.

A number of supporters had moved to cut their ties with the Humane Society after the board’s decision.

Josh Skipworth, the Humane Society’s 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.

The organization’s revenue has gone up significantly since he’s been CEO. It’s viewed as a positive shift since he became CEO,” Skipworth said. “But It’s ridiculous to put the business outlook over the female employees,” he said.

He later said he would stay on.

Other board members told the call they found it troubling the Humane Society would invoke Pacelle’s business record while discussing an investigation into sexual harassment, the people familiar with the matter said.

One of the people familiar with the matter called the discussion “extremely dysfunctional.” Another said they were “stunned” by the vote and thought the evidence against Pacelle was “compelling.”

The Humane Society investigation interviewed 33 witnesses, including Pacelle, outlining complaints from a former intern who said Pacelle kissed her against her will in 2005; a former employee who said he asked to masturbate in front of her and offered her oral sex in a hotel room 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.

The board members who resigned Thursday included: Suzy Welch, the journalist and author; Marsha Perelman, former chief executive of the Philadelphia Zoo; Jennifer Leaning, director of the Harvard FXB Center; cartoonist Patrick McDonnell; Buffy Linehan, a former executive at the Altria Group; Andrew Weinstein, chief executive of Ridgeback Communications; and David Brownstein, managing director and head of public finance at Citi.