Who doesn't love animals? We've all seen those TV ads drawing attention to the issue of animal abuse. And those who abuse animals deserve everything the law has to throw at them. But your donation to the charities that run those ads might not be helping animals the way those ads would have you believe.
In 2000, a multitude of animal rights groups filed a lawsuit against Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, alleging cruelty to animals. Ringling has long been a target of these groups because the circus uses animals as part of its act.
But this 2000 lawsuit had something the animal rights groups' previous complaints lacked -- a witness to the "abuse" on the inside. But this witness, Tom Rider, wasn't what he seemed; he was, in fact, a paid witness by those seeking to shut down Ringling.
Feld countersued the groups and individuals that brought the suit against the company and, in the discovery stage, found proof that Rider had received payments totaling $190,000. Those payments cast so much doubt on the charges from the animal rights groups that the case was dismissed "with prejudice," meaning the case was found to be without merit to the point that the court blocked these groups from refiling it. Ever.
The countersuit against the animal rights groups for conspiring to pay for false testimony, meanwhile, moves along. This past Friday, one of the main defendants -- the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals -- settled its end of the countersuit by agreeing to pay Feld $9.3 million.
The ASPCA did not admit any wrongdoing in its settlement and released a statement from President and CEO Ed Sayres that the group "concluded that it is in the best interests of the organization to resolve this expensive, protracted litigation." Expensive and protracted litigation the group initiated, of course.
Feld's case against the other defendants -- including Rider, the Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Protection Institute United with Born Free USA, and the Humane Society USA, which became a party to the suit when it merged with the Fund for Animals in 2005 -- continues.
Payments to Rider were made through nonprofit organizations set up by these groups. The Daily Caller reported, "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."
The case against the other defendants was brought under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which was created to combat organized crime. How far this case will go remains to be seen. But with the ASPCA settling, the financial burden these groups sought to impose on Ringling in fighting their claims now rests fully on their shoulders and is growing every day.
All the defendants, with the exception of paid witness Rider, are still subject to the suit. All, with the exception of Rider, are 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, which means donations to them are tax-deductible. That $190,000 paid to Rider came from charitable donations given under the guise of helping animals.
Without doubt, a lot of animals could have been helped by $190,000 in donations. And it's unlikely that donors moved by the ASPCA's TV ads to give their money to help animals know their money went to pay a witness in a lawsuit deemed without merit. Or that their donations could well end up being used to pay the circus millions in a settlement or judgment.
The ASPCA, while not admitting any guilt, hopes its donors never know. The remaining charitable defendants must hope the same. Donors and the animals they seek to help deserve much, much better.
Derek Hunter is a columnist and radio host on WBAL in Baltimore and WMAL in D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @derekahunter.