Yesterday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the Ringling Bros. circus brought by a herd of animal activist groups, including the Fund for Animals (FFA), now a branch of the animal-rights “Humane Society” of the United States (HSUS). While the ruling was based on a legal technicality, the finer details indicate something sinister: a pay-to-play conspiracy involving HSUS executive Michael Markarian. Let’s take a look. [Click here for a copy of the ruling.]
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2000 and alleged wrongdoing by circus elephant trainers, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. It was based on information provided by a former Ringling elephant trainer named Tom Rider. After leaving his job in 2000, Rider was paid by animal rights groups to crisscross the country testifying about the supposedly “bad” treatment of circus elephants. One of those groups was the Fund for Animals, which Markarian took over in 2002.
The Fund for Animals merged with HSUS in 2005 and became the Humane Society Legislative Fund, which Markarian continued to lead; he also became HSUS’s Executive Vice President. (If you find this confusing, you’re not alone: The Court referred to Markarian’s changing group affiliations with the catch-all “FFA /HSUS”)
In his ruling, Judge Emmet Sullivan found that the Fund for Animals paid Tom Rider $4,400 through Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, the law firm litigating its case. The Fund also paid Rider $1,000 directly, and funneled an additional $11,500 to him through the “Wildlife Advocacy Project” (WAP), a nonprofit group founded by some of the law firm’s attorneys.
All told, the cabal of plaintiff animal rights groups paid Rider at least $190,000. And Judge Sullivan wrote that this was his "sole source of income" as the case made its way through the federal court system.
Markarian’s testimony tried to muddle the pay-for-play implications, but the Court found it dubious at best. In his ruling, Judge Sullivan writes:
Beginning in December 2001 and continuing until at least the beginning of 2008, the organizational plaintiffs made payments to WAP for the purpose of funding Mr. Rider. While FFA/HSUS (Mr. Markarian) testified that it was not certain whether WAP used its “donations” for other purposes as well, this testimony is undermined by the documents underlying FFA/HSUS’s “donations,” which indicate that the money was specifically for use in connection with this litigation. FFA/HSUS’s testimony also is questionable given that in 2003, plaintiffs’ counsel, Ms. Meyer, specifically sent an email to the representatives of the organizational plaintiffs, including Mr. Markarian, requesting funds to support Mr. Rider’s advocacy efforts regarding the elephants and the lawsuit, and expressly suggesting that the funds for Mr. Rider could be contributed to WAP so that they would be tax deductible.
HSUS also co-hosted a July 2005 fundraiser in California, along with the ASPCA and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), for the explicit purpose of raising money to “wage this battle on behalf of the elephants.” As Judge Sullivan notes, “proceeds from the fundraiser (more than $13,000.00) were provided by AWI to WAP, which in turn disbursed those funds to Mr. Rider.”
It appears that Michael Markarian and a stampede of other animal rights leaders engaged in a conspiracy to funnel money to a witness in federal court—including help from their lawyers, who used a tax-exempt charity as their favored “bag man.” But Judge Sullivan smelled the rat a mile away: “The Court finds that Mr. Rider is essentially a paid plaintiff and fact witness who is not credible, and therefore affords no weight to his testimony…. [T]he primary purpose [for the payments] is to keep Mr. Rider involved with the litigation…”
It remains to be seen whether the fallout from this stinging courtroom defeat will be significant. For starters, we’re recommending today that the IRS immediately suspend the Wildlife Advocacy Project’s tax-exempt status, and that HSUS suspend Markarian until it has made a full, public accounting of his use of funds from unsuspecting donors.