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The Humane Society’s sexual harassment scandal just won’t end

Kitty Block has replaced Wayne Pacelle, a man accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, as president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “Kitty has inherited a mess,” said Debra Katz, an employment lawyer in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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When the Humane Society of the United States announced the departure of a veteran chief executive accused of sexual harassment, some major donors and employees claimed victory — and dared to hope the animal charity had resolved a scandal that threatened its finances and reputation.

But eight weeks after the resignation of Wayne Pacelle, who stepped down after three misconduct complaints surfaced against him, his replacement, Kitty Block, faces pressure for broader changes, suggesting the Humane Society’s cleanup has barely begun.

This mission evokes painful memories for Block, who sued her former boss David Wills at the organization two decades ago for sexual harassment.

“Kitty has inherited a mess,” said Debra Katz, an employment lawyer in Washington who represented Block in the 1995 case. “But she knows what it’s like. She’s been in these shoes.”

Block has pledged to fix the Humane Society.

“I am committed to rebuilding this organization, the trust,” she said in an interview. “I want to clear out the concerns and the safety issues so people can do their jobs.”

In December, the Humane Society hired a law firm to investigate a report of sexual harassment against Pacelle, and it identified complaints from three women, dating to 2006. Pacelle, in a statement to The Washington Post, said, “I continue to dispute the specifics of the allegations.”

The board of directors decided to close the inquiry without action — prompting seven members to resign.

A week into Block’s tenure, seven prominent donors, including Jim Greenbaum, a former telecom executive, and Rachel Perman, director of charitable giving at Tofurky, called her with a list of demands: replace board chair Eric Bernthal and any other members who voted to keep Pacelle in place, launch a new investigation into past complaints of harassment, and issue an apology to the women who said they felt unsafe at work. Bernthal did not respond to requests for comment.

The Humane Society remains committed to Bernthal. “The chair of the board is an important role, and one that comes with many responsibilities, and our current chair has fulfilled those responsibilities,” a spokesman said.

The donors say they remain outraged by the board’s public statement — issued two hours before Pacelle’s resignation Feb. 2 — that an inquiry by an outside law firm found no “credible evidence” to support the women’s claims.

“We don’t see any healthy path forward without acknowledging mistakes of the past,” the donors said in an email to The Post.

Supporter concerns about lingering trouble could deal a financial blow to the nonprofit, analysts say. Two of the donors who gave their terms to Block said they give the Humane Society six-figure checks annually.

“Reputation is any organization’s most important asset,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, a firm that helps brands mitigate scandal and is not working with the charity. “Undermining reputation undermines stakeholder confidence in an organization, and that can translate to huge dollars.”

The Humane Society said it does not “have data to report” on its donor levels. “Kitty and other leadership staff have been talking to many major donors, foundations and others, and the strong majority are still supporting the organization and its mission,” the spokesman said.

Over the past decade under Pacelle’s leadership, the Humane Society grew from $160 million in assets to $210 million, according to the latest Internal Revenue Service filings.

Records show Pacelle earned about $380,000 a year.

“During 13 years as CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, the organization achieved unprecedented success,” Pacelle said in his statement to The Post.

The Humane Society has a global operation concerned with the welfare of animals: the rescue of puppies, the end of elephant acts in circuses, the conservation of bobcats, gorillas and orca whales.

Donors told The Post they expect their money to benefit the cause — not pay for settlements related to misconduct.

Its supporters are not publicly listed, but Greenbaum, a former telecom executive who now focuses on philanthropy and donated $100,000 to the Humane Society in 2017, called on others in a Facebook post and directly to withhold their support until the organization has repopulated the board.

“The time is now for a clean sweep of the board,” he wrote in an email to The Post. “I will not fund HSUS again until a full external investigation is performed, and made public, and all current board members resign, with the exception of a few who voted to remove Pacelle.”

Peggy Kaplan, a former advisory council chairman for the Humane Society, has also urged the nonprofit to keep investigating complaints against Pacelle.

“Women I’ve talked with are furious that the investigation was shut down,” said Kaplan, who has put the Humane Society in her will. “The foxes cannot watch the hen house.”

The Humane Society said it would consider another inquiry.

“Our priorities right now are to launch a comprehensive culture change initiative and undertake a board governance review, both conducted by outside experts, the results of which will inform our next steps including any further investigations,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Anne Wallestad, chief executive of BoardSource, a consulting firm focused on charities, said nonprofits face grave consequences for bungling harassment scandals, considering they’re reliant on the goodwill of donors.

“Nonprofit organizations exist to advance the public good,” Wallestad said, “and as part of that, they have a responsibility to be a workplace that doesn’t ask employees to put up with harassment.”

In the wake of Pacelle’s exit, Bernstein, the PR executive, said the Humane Society should be digging up and rectifying every instance of harassment in recent years — otherwise, the charity could be stuck dealing indefinitely with fallout.

“The Humane Society needs to be working furiously to determine the full depth and breadth of inappropriate sexual behavior within the organization,” he said, “to try and bring everything possible to light now and not have such matters continue to drag on for years.”

Since stepping up, Block has hired workforce consultants to start repairing the culture at the Humane Society.

She announced that the board will bring in outside experts to examine its structure, policies and protocols and has urged staffers to report harassment through an anonymous hotline or to her personally.

Block also said the organization is looking into new complaints against Pacelle that were reported to her after he resigned.

Pacelle declined to address questions about these instances but said that “it was clear that I could no longer effectively lead HSUS because the allegations against me had become an enormous distraction and source of division within the organization.”

A group of 10 past and present staffers sent Block their grievances and recommendations for change this month in an email obtained by The Post that sought an audit to determine “the scope of harm suffered by female employees” and the leaders who “enabled it.” The effort would look for evidence of “sexual harassment, gender bias, hostile work environment, favoritism and retaliation.”

The group also seeks a public statement to “acknowledge and decry that these women have been unfairly accused as being liars, disgruntled former employees or paid competitors from the meat industry or other movements.”

Kelly Dermody, a San Francisco employment lawyer, represents the group.

“I haven’t seen good faith yet from HSUS,” Dermody said. “The whole issue was: Who was the CEO? And not this entire climate where women could be preyed on for years. Now suddenly it’s all supposed to be better?”

Other women have also come forward.

Tulsa Simpson, a 29-year-old student in Baltimore, said an encounter with Pacelle in 2010 steered her family away from Humane Society events — they’d previously supported the charity at galas — and tarnished her view of her “dream job.”

Simpson said Pacelle approached her when she paid to attend the “Spotlight Humane” black-tie event at the Sofitel hotel in Chicago eight years ago. He asked her about her career goals. She recalls saying she wanted to work for the Humane Society and that Pacelle started telling her about internships there.

Then, she said, Pacelle said he’d forgotten something in his room and asked whether she wanted to walk there with him so they could keep talking. Simpson said she agreed.

“Once we were inside his room, he grabbed my arm and began to forcefully kiss me,” she said. “I was really scared and really surprised. I did not reciprocate.”

Pacelle did not respond to questions about this event or others he was asked about for this story.

Simpson said she fled and promptly told her mother.

“After everything that happened with Harvey Weinstein, I spent the next few weeks Googling ‘Wayne Pacelle,’ ” she said.

At the Humane Society, meanwhile, some say they still don’t feel comfortable enough to speak up. Pacelle’s presence looms large: A quote attributed to him is still prominently displayed on a wall at the Gaithersburg, Md., office. It says, “Animals are not just the back drop of our own story but at the center of the whole drama.”

One staffer in the D.C. area said Pacelle had kissed her after a work dinner in 2007 and then invited her to his hotel room, a request she declined. Three weeks later, she said, he asked her whether she wanted to have sex in his office. She refused. Her husband told The Post that she had described the incident to him later that year.

“I started to notice that I was being shut out of things,” she told The Post. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation. “I thought maybe it was because I wasn’t talented or smart enough. It destroyed my confidence. I wondered if I should have just gone along with it.”

Other accusations, meanwhile, have emerged on social media.

Melinda Fox, who worked as the senior director of outreach and strategic initiatives at the Humane Society from 2005 to 2008, said she was pushed out after expressing concerns about how Pacelle interacted with female donors.

She wrote in a widely shared Facebook post that she received “calls and emails from donors — women Wayne had affairs with, and when he turned cold with them, called [me] crying and sent lengthy emails saying they felt ‘used.’ ”

She sent “the most disturbing one” to Pacelle and Mike Markarian, the Humane Society’s current chief operating officer.

“Markarian called me into his office to tell me my job ‘was to protect Wayne,’ ” Fox wrote. “I told him it was ‘Wayne’s job to protect Wayne, and that he needed to reel himself in and stop sleeping with donors.’ ”

In an interview with The Post, Markarian, who has worked for the charity since 2005, said he never told Fox to back off harassment complaints about Pacelle or “protect” Pacelle.

“I believe the women,” he said of Pacelle’s accusers. “I thought that his staying would hurt staff morale, and I believe the allegations are true.”

Meanwhile, Matthew Scully, a writer whose reports have been published by the Humane Society, stoked more controversy with an opinion column last month in the conservative magazine the American Spectator called “The #MeTooing of Wayne Pacelle.”

The complaints about Pacelle were “contrived to upend the career and reputation of a friend of mine” who was “unjustly harmed in a #MeToo frenzy,” Scully wrote.

“Matthew Scully’s past support for the work of The HSUS is well known, but he is not an employee or a consultant of The HSUS,” spokeswoman Anna West wrote in an email. “His views are his own and his alone.”

Block, however, dismissed claims that Pacelle’s exit was an unfair consequence of the cultural moment.

Twenty-three years ago, as a fledgling lawyer at the charity, she sued her former boss for sexually harassing her from her first week on the job — a move that led to his firing and the Humane Society’s first human resources department.

Block and a co-worker accused Wills, the former vice president of investigations, of making physical threats and “unwelcome sexual advances” toward them, court records show, prompting the Humane Society to fire him.

Wills responded by calling Block and her co-worker liars who had conspired against him, according to documents from the time, and then sued her and the Humane Society for reputational damage.

Court records show that Wills denied sexually harassing anyone but admitted to commenting on the appearance of female employees, having sex with subordinates (other than Block), telling women at work he was the “predator, not the prey” while pursuing romantic relationships with them and using Humane Society funds to pay prostitutes.

The court dismissed his claims.

The outcome came as a relief — and a surprise.

“We didn’t have the #MeToo movement back then,” Block said. “I did worry no one would believe me. But you get to the point where you can’t take it anymore.”