ASPCA pays circus $9.3 million to settle suit related to elephant litigation

David Martosko Executive Editor
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The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has agreed to pay the parent company of the Ringling Bros. Circus $9.3 million to settle allegations that the animal group conspired to pay a witness for false testimony in a 12-year lawsuit over the treatment of circus elephants.

Feld Entertainment, the circus’s operator, said Friday that the settlement resolves the ASPCA’s part in paying Tom Rider, the star witness procured by a larger group of animal advocacy organizations, to testify falsely about abuse he claimed to have witnessed at the hands of circus trainers. That lawsuit was first brought into federal court in 2000.

The payment releases the ASPCA from liability related to a racketeering counter-suit Feld brought against the animal organizations in 2007 after documents turned over in discovery showed that the plaintiffs made payments — often through a nonprofit managed by their lawyers — to Rider.

The defendants included the ASPCA, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Animal Protection Institute United with Born Free USA. The Humane Society of the United States also became a defendant when it merged with the Fund for Animals in 2005.

Evidence in the trial showed that some of the funds paid to the nonprofit pass-through group were provided by the Humane Society of the United States with a check signed by its CEO, Wayne Pacelle.

Friday’s settlement, Feld said in a statement, does not release any of the other defendants from the suit, based on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Rider is also a co-defendant, as are the attorneys involved.

Two of those lawyers, Jonathan Lovvorn and Kimberly Ockene, now work for the Humane Society of the United States but practiced law at Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal during some of the years the original lawsuit wound its way through the courts. The firm’s principals — Katherine Meyer, Eric Glitzenstein and Howard Crystal — are also RICO defendants, along with their nonprofit Wildlife Advocacy Project, the organization that paid Rider $190,000 over a period of two years.

“Our firm has been defending Feld Entertainment against this onslaught of misguided litigation brought by animal activist groups for years. As their attorneys, it is gratifying to finally have a settlement that begins to make up for the harm inflicted on this company, the family who owns it, and its employees,” said John Simpson of Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., the lead counsel for Feld Entertainment.

ASPCA President & CEO Ed Sayres issued a statement Friday in which he said his group “concluded that it is in the best interests of the organization to resolve this expensive, protracted litigation.”

He noted that a federal judge never ruled on the merits of the 2000 case, which alleged the Ringling Bros. Circus violated the Endangered Species Act by importing and breeding elephants for its circuses. (RELATED VIDEO: Animal rights at the circus: TheDC puts activists’ claims to the test)

Sayres did not address the suit or his organization’s role in paying its chief witness. He did concede, however, that the litigation “stopped being about the elephants a long time ago.”

ASPCA spokeswoman Emily Schneider told The Daily Caller that the group “does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing.”

The Center for Consumer Freedom, a business-funded nonprofit that has crossed swords with animal rights groups for more than a decade, said Friday that the Humane Society of the United States in particular will have trouble explaining its participation in the alleged RICO conspiracy.

Funds paid to Rider through that group’s contributions, the Center said, were dollars contributed by pet lovers who had no idea about the political war the HSUS was waging.

“While HSUS has spent this holiday season raising money with tear-jerking ads featuring pet rescues, the group really ought to be asking for money to pay their for their defense attorneys and shady dealings,” said the center’s executive director, Richard Berman. “This whole racketeering scheme reeks of something out of a mob drama.”

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to include a comment from Schneider that was received after publication.

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David Martosko