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Humane Society CEO resigns after sexual harassment allegations

Wayne Pacelle / Wikimedia Commons

The Humane Society announced Friday that chief executive Wayne Pacelle had resigned, one day after the organization's board had decided to keep him in place in the face of multiple sexual harassment complaints.

The board named Kitty Block, an attorney who is president of Humane Society's international affiliate, as acting chief executive.

"The last few days have been very hard for our entire family of staff and supporters," said Rick Bernthal, Chairman of the Board of The HSUS. "We are profoundly grateful for Wayne's unparalleled level of accomplishments and service to the cause of animal protection and welfare."

The resignation came hours after Bernthal had dismissed the complaints against Pacelle as lacking "credible evidence."

Board members voted 17-9 with two abstaining Thursday to retain Pacelle after an investigation found three complaints of sexual harassment against him. The vote defied a backlash by major donors and a walkout threat by employees. Seven board members quit the organization immediately after the vote to protest the decision.

"Many of the allegations were explosive in nature, and reading or hearing about them is a shock to anyone," Bernthal said in an earlier statement. "It was to us, too. But when we sifted through the evidence presented, we did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence."

During a seven-hour conference call Thursday, a majority of board members calculated that cutting ties with Pacelle would do more damage to the nonprofit than keeping him in the post, according to three people familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity because they feared retaliation.

"We have a lot of animals to protect - and staff to protect," Jeffrey Arciniaco, president of the South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale and a board member since 2009, told the Post on Friday.

Aricinaco would not comment on his vote or the internal discussion, but he said members made the call to retain Pacelle only after much deliberation: "We looked at the facts. We have a lot of great employees, and we made a very careful decision."

The choice to keep Pacelle broke with a recent pattern of removing leaders accused of sexual misconduct. in the workplace.

Over the past several months, high-profile figures across several industries have stepped down or been fired, including Roger Ailes of Fox News, Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein and several television personalities.

The internal investigation by a law firm hired by the Humane Society also found that senior female leaders said they had warned Pacelle against his conduct with little effect.

Pacelle denied all the allegations to The Post on Monday.

"I absolutely deny any suggestion that I did anything untoward," he said.

The inquiry also found the nonprofit had offered settlements to three former employees who said they were dismissed or demoted after telling their co-workers about Pacelle's alleged misconduct.

But in his earlier statement, Bernthal suggested board members were not persuaded by the allegations against Pacelle. He said severance payments for departing employees were "customary for almost any major business."

A number of prominent supporters had said they would end their relationship with the Humane Society to protest Thursday's vote. A group of employees had said they were organizing a walkout at the organization's headquarters in Washington, District of Columbia, next week.

Pacelle, who has led the organization since 2004, had spread the nonprofit's reach, board members argued during the call, according to people familiar with the matter.

Over the last decade, the Humane Society has grown from $160 million in assets to $210 million under Pacelle's leadership, according to the latest IRS filings.

During the call, Bernthal invited all board members to speak. However, the call did not hear from the lawyer who conducted the investigation into Pacelle's behavior, three people familiar with the matter said.

The chief executive also spoke to the conference call for about 10 minutes, describing his achievements and denying allegations of sexual harassment.

Two board members apologized to Pacelle during the call, three people familiar with the matter said.

Josh Skipworth, the Humane Society's state director in Iowa, said he decided to quit the organization after the board appeared to prioritize Pacelle's fundraising talents over a toxic workplace environment for women.

"The organization's revenue has gone up significantly since he's been CEO. It's viewed as a positive shift since he became CEO," Skipworth said. "But it's ridiculous to put the business outlook over the female employees."

One of the people familiar with the matter called the discussion "extremely dysfunctional." Another said they were "stunned" by the vote and thought the evidence against Pacelle was "compelling."

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

The board members who resigned Thursday included: Suzy Welch, the journalist and author, Marsha Perelman, former chief executive of the Philadelphia Zoo, Jennifer Leaning, director of the Harvard FXB Center, cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, Buffy Linehan, a former executive at the Altria Group, Andrew Weinstein, chief executive of Ridgeback Communications and David Brownstein, managing director and head of public finance at Citi.