FELTON, California -- The Humane Society of the United States is reeling from a sexual harassment scandal involving the group's two most prominent leaders. The ABC7 I-Team has interviewed several Northern California women who say they've been warning about problems at the non-profit for years.
These women tell Dan Noyes they reported sexual harassment at HSUS, but didn't go public with their complaints at the time for fear of losing their jobs.
Ariana Huemer now runs a sanctuary called "Hen Harbor" in the Santa Cruz mountains and remembers her 17 years at the Humane Society of the United States, exposed to what she calls the "bro culture".
"They will be very excited if somebody, if the new hire was hot," said Huemer. "That was the topic of conversation or if she had big boobs, that would be amazing."
Humeur tells the I-Team male executives sleeping with subordinates was common, and that she reached her breaking point when the talk became very explicit.
"And he said. 'Oh, so-and-so likes this sexual act,' whatever that was," Huemer recounted. "And I was like, 'What? How do you know?' And he said, 'Oh, because we have pictures of it."
She says the pictures circulated among the staff. Humeur left HSUS in 2014 after complaining about sexual harassment and reaching a settlement with the group, in which they denied any wrong-doing.
"Women have been quitting HSUS for years because of these issues," Alex Bury told the I-Team. She left her position as HSUS fundraiser because of how the non-profit responded to her problems with a major donor.
"He got out and you know went to hug me," Bury explaned. "And I tried to step away and he kissed me, and so at that point I did break away and left, he you know grabbed at my breast."
Bury tells Dan Noyes she had handled advances from donors before, but she claims the response from an HSUS executive this time was shocking.
Alex: "Take one for the team."
Dan: "He said, 'Take one for the team?'"
Dan: "Do you think that he was kidding, half kidding or serious?"
Alex: "I think half kidding."
Dan: "But, there was a message there."
Alex: "Absolutely, yes. Do anything for the cause."
That executive, Vice President Paul Shapiro, denies Alex Bury's account, but Politico reported in January that six women complained about inappropriate behavior by Shapiro in recent years, including claims he "asked them to have sex and told lewd jokes in the office."
Shapiro, that once public face of the Humane Society, declined an on-camera interview, but said he left HSUS for unrelated reasons after the New Year. He sent a statement that reads in part, "I sometimes acted inappropriately, for which I'm deeply sorry. I engaged in sophomoric and unprofessional behavior. I should have known better and sincerely regret my thoughtlessness and poor decisions."
As Shapiro's story broke in January, accusations also surfaced about the Humane Society's CEO Wayne Pacelle.
"Women I didn't even know had stories were coming out of the woodwork and saying Alex what's the phone number, is it would happen to me for years ago," Bury said.
The Washington Post reports that investigators hired by the Humane Society interviewed 33 people, and that "several former high-ranking women had warned Pacelle ... his sexual relationships with subordinates, donors and volunteers could hurt the charity."
Wayne Pacelle declined our request for an on-camera interview, but emailed the I-Team, "Never did I intend to make any colleague feel uncomfortable; nevertheless I am very concerned that some individuals apparently felt that way. I do, however, deny that I took any action that crossed the line." Pacelle resigned as CEO earlier this month.
"I can't believe I had to fight the organization I love to try to save its soul," Jennifer Fearing told the I-Team. She worked closely with Wayne Pacelle as the HSUS California director, before heading out on her own as a Sacramento lobbyist. She told an audience at the Animal Law Conference in October, "There is no legitimate excuse for tolerating male predatory behavior, period."
Fearing now refuses to lobby for the Humane Society, unsatisfied with the non-profit's handling of sexual harassment complaints.
Jennifer: "I would not be signing that contract and affiliating myself with HSUS until they had a complete leadership change."
Dan: "You cut ties."
The nation's largest animal protection organization is scrambling to recover, as seven board members resigned and some donors pulled funding.
"We will provide a safe and secure workplace," said Kitty Block, the new acting HSUS CEO Kitty Block. She declined our request for an interview, but posted a statement on the HSUS website.
"The compassion we seek in the world will be the foundation of everything we do and every interaction we have," Block said.
Below are the complete statements from Wayne Pacelle and Paul Shapiro:
Wayne Pacelle Statement: "Women earned 80 percent of senior positions at HSUS, and I was proud to play a role in empowering so many amazing women during my tenure.
The recent allegations are deeply hurtful and concerning because they run counter to the way I've lived my life and the way I intended to lead the organization.
Never did I intend to make any colleague feel uncomfortable; nevertheless I am very concerned that some individuals apparently felt that way. I do, however, deny that I took any action that crossed the line. Until the recent campaign against me, no individual had filed a single complaint against me in my 23 years of service."
Paul Shapiro Statement: The conversation regarding equality, fairness, and respect in the workplace is one I support and believe is long overdue. To that end, I feel compelled to address my own past failures and sincere efforts to do better.
In years past at my previous job, I sometimes acted inappropriately, for which I'm deeply sorry. I engaged in sophomoric and unprofessional behavior. I should have known better and sincerely regret my thoughtlessness and poor decisions. I apologized privately then and do so publicly now to anyone I've hurt or offended.
As a result of my embarrassing actions, in October 2016 I assumed a new role with less responsibility and no employees reporting to me. These consequences were swift, fair, and appropriate.
Sixteen months later, for unrelated reasons, I left the organization to pursue another important opportunity to help animals.
Many of the assertions that have been publicly reported are simply false. I was rightfully held accountable for what I actually did, which was irresponsible enough.
My passion, in my career and life, is to eliminate suffering among the vulnerable. I'm sorry to everyone I let down who shares that same passion. My goal is to own and learn from my mistakes and do better.
Only then will I be able to do what's most important: making the world a kinder place for all of us, human and nonhuman alike.
January 30, 2018
I-Team investigates complaints of sexual harassment at the Humane Society of the United States