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Wayne Pacelle (Photo from flickr.com TEDx Manhattan)

Humane Society keeps CEO after sexual harassment complaints, prompting seven board members to resign

The Humane Society of the United States voted Thursday to keep chief executive Wayne Pacelle in his job after an internal investigation had identified three complaints of sexual harassment against him. Seven board members resigned in protest immediately after the board's decision.

The move to keep Pacelle at the helm and close the investigation defied demands by major donors to cut ties with the long-time chief executive - or risk losing their support.

The decision by the Humane Society breaks with a recent pattern of removing leaders accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Over the past several months, high-profile figures across a number of industries have stepped down or been fired, including Roger Ailes of Fox News, Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein, and several television personalities.

The 31 board members reviewed the allegations against Pacelle over the course of a marathon, seven-hour meeting. None of the board members contacted by The Washington Post responded to requests for comment. The Humane Society, one of the country's largest animal charities, also did not respond to requests for comment.

Several donors said they were outraged at the outcome of the meeting.

Rachel Perman, the director of charitable giving at Tofurkey, a vegetarian food company that has sent $30,000 to the Humane Society over the last two years, said she was "disgusted" by Thursday's decision. "I think Wayne Pacelle should do the right thing and resign," she said. "I absolutely will not donate to HSUS if Wayne Pacelle is employed."

Jim Greenbaum, founder of the Greenbaum Foundation which gave $100,000 to the Humane Society last year, also said he would not be renewing his grant.

The board members who stepped down immediately Thursday included author Suzy Welch and former chief executive of the Philadelphia Zoo Marsha Perelman.

The internal investigation, which was conducted by Washington law firm Morgan Lewis last month, detailed the stories of three women who said Pacelle had harassed them, with complaints dating to 2005.

The nonprofit also offered settlements to three other workers who said they were dismissed or demoted after speaking up about Pacelle's alleged sexual misconduct, according to a memo describing the law firm's findings.

Several former female leaders told the law firm that their warnings about Pacelle's behavior weren't taken seriously for years, the memo said.

Pacelle denied all the allegations to The Washington Post Monday. "I absolutely deny any suggestion that I did anything untoward," he said. Pacelle did not respond to requests for comment following the board's decision.

The Humane Society investigation interviewed 33 witnesses, including Pacelle, outlining complaints from a former intern who said Pacelle had 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.

Reasa Haggard Currier, who has worked as director of Faith Outreach at the Humane Society since 2014, said that she was one of the three women and that the board's decision to retain Pacelle angered her.

"To have at our helm an individual that has abused his power is a tragedy," Currier said. "I don't care if I get fired for saying that."

Currier said that when she was an intern at the charity in 2005, Pacelle invited her to a coffee shop near the National Cathedral under the guise of a mentoring session.

"He very abruptly stood up, pulled me against him, tilted my head and kissed me," she said. "I left shortly after. He pursued me, called me and tried to get me to sit in his car."

Currier showed the Post an email she sent to her then-boyfriend in August 2005, describing an unwanted interaction with an unnamed person at work: "I ended up talking to my mom, and she said I cannot run from uncomfortable encounters," she wrote at the time.

On Monday, Pacelle had denied kissing a former intern in 2005. He called the claim part of a "coordinated" attack against him and the Humane Society.

Ashley Rhinehart, who worked at the Humane Society from 2012 to 2017, most recently as a senior food and nutrition manager, told the Post on Thursday she was also one of the women mentioned in the investigation.

Pacelle had tried to salsa dance with her in the office one evening in 2012, she said, and then repeatedly asked her to meet him in his office alone. That behavior compelled her to leave the charity, she said.

Pacelle denied the allegation. "The one complaint about the salsa dancing, I simply had a conversation with a person, and it turned into that," he told The Post Monday.

Perman said she had previously warned the Humane Society leadership about sexual misconduct, sending an email to all 31 board members last November urging an investigation after several women at the Humane Society complained to her that they had been mistreated.

"I am concerned about alleged issues of pervasive sexual harassment within HSUS," she wrote, according to emails reviewed by the Post.

Perman said only one board member responded to her email - and that board member launched a counter-attack against her.

"Are you out of your mind?" board member Erika Brunson, a California interior designer, responded. "Don't you have anything better to do in life than air your repressed sexual fantasies in public?"(Brunson did not respond to the Post's request for comment.)

Pacelle has led the Humane Society since 2004 and earned about $380,000 in 2016, according to IRS filings.

At a Dec. 4 all-staff meeting, he told employees he wanted to fight harassment in the workplace.

"I want to start by saying I'm a male leader in a field that is dominated by women," he said, according to video from the event. "Just as we ask people in society to examine animal protection issues . . . I think it's up to each one of us, but especially me, as CEO of this organization, to take stock of this cultural moment and hit the reset button and ask ourselves if we're doing enough about these issues."

On Wednesday evening, after several donors had called for his removal, Pacelle told the Post he was confident people would continue to support the Humane Society, which focuses on ending animal suffering.

"I've not gotten one call from a donor who said they're going to stop supporting the organization," Pacelle said. "I've gotten hundreds that have said the opposite."