Background: After years of being on defense in a lawsuit filed by several animal rights groups, Feld Entertainment (owner of Ringling Bros.) went on offense, filing a lawsuit against animal rights activists under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in 2007. Feld amended its complaint in early 2010 to include HSUS and two of its lawyers, Senior VP Jonathan R. Lovvorn and Kimberly Ockene.
The Facts: A decade ago, animal-rights groups sued Feld Entertainment (parent company of the Ringling Brothers circus) alleging elephant abuse in violation of the Endangered Species Act. That lawsuit was dismissed by a US District Court in late 2009, and a US Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal. In dismissing the lawsuit, federal judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled that the animal-rights plaintiffs had essentially engaged in a pay-to-play scheme by paying the lead witness Tom Rider more than $190,000—his sole source of income during the litigation. The court found him to be “not a credible witness” and “essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness,” adding that he “often gave conflicting answers and was repeatedly impeached on the witness stand.”
While HSUS was not an original party to the suit against Feld, it merged with one of the original parties, the Fund for Animals (FFA), in 2004 while the suit was ongoing. HSUS has tried to separate itself from FFA, but as Feld told the court during its RICO suit, HSUS acted as an “independent racketeer”:
HSUS is in it as an independent racketeer.…They sent six payments to WAP [Wildlife Advocacy Project] that were earmarked for [plaintiffs’ witness] Tom Rider, and those payments were made, as we showed, out of a HSUS bank account, on HSUS stationary, a HSUS check sent by a HSUS employee, Jonathan Lovvorn, who had been a partner in that firm before he came over there [to HSUS]. So the idea that they didn’t know about this, that they were innocent, that they were duped, it’s ridiculous. They were in the middle of this.
According to the court, the alleged scheme revolved around a nonprofit group set up by some plaintiffs’ lawyers:
Beginning in December 2001 and continuing until at least the beginning of 2008, the organizational plaintiffs made payments to [the Wildlife Advocacy Project] for the purpose of funding Mr. Rider. While FFA/HSUS (Mr. Markarian) testified that it was not certain whether WAP used its “donations” for other purposes as well, this testimony is undermined by the documents underlying FFA/HSUS’s “donations,” which indicate that the money was specifically for use in connection with this litigation. FFA/HSUS’s testimony also is questionable given that in 2003, plaintiffs’ counsel, Ms. Meyer, specifically sent an email to the representatives of the organizational plaintiffs, including Mr. Markarian, requesting funds to support Mr. Rider’s advocacy efforts regarding the elephants and the lawsuit, and expressly suggesting that the funds for Mr. Rider could be contributed to WAP so that they would be tax deductible.
In plain English: the plaintiffs allegedly conspired to funnel money to a witness. Feld believes the alleged racket operated in violation of state and federal laws, such as RICO and the Virginia Conspiracy Act. In all, Feld alleges numerous torts and actions, including bribery, illegal witness payments, obstruction of justice, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, andconspiracy to harm a business.
Bottom Line: The animal rights groups fought for years to get the RICO suit dismissed but in July 2012 a judge threw out their request and has allowed the suit to move forward. We don’t know how many thousands (or millions) this legal defense has cost HSUS, but we doubt that the donors giving $19 a month thought their money was going to pay lawyers to defend corruption charges. It’s another reason to make sure donations to animal groups stay local.