As with many of you, I've been worried about the toll that Hurricane Sandy has taken upon animals, especially in New Jersey and New York. And I couldn't help wondering: will the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have the gall to raise money off this disaster, after their widely publicized disgrace in the wake of Katrina?
No need to wonder. Fundraisers are like Navy Seals: they have to be ready for every contingency. Boots are already on the ground, so to speak -- virtually, at any rate. The HSUS has been ready to take your donations for days, in fact since before the storm hit: they put out warnings and outstretched palms on October 29th.
Now, why is this so loathsome? Because -- based on the HSUS's performance during and after Katrina -- if you care about starving creatures, you're probably better off grinding your dollars into a nutritious paste and feeding them directly. This may not be the best use of dollars, but at least all of them would be guaranteed to reach the animals.
Malfeasance on the part of the HSUS made the Bush administration's response to Katrina look like a masterpiece of charity and efficiency.
That said, their fundraising was spectacular: the sort of stuff that gets studied at Harvard Business School. While people and their pets were starving and drowning, Wayne Pacelle's organization raised a truly gorgeous sum of money: something in the range of 34.6 million dollars. Which is admirable, when you consider what that kind of cash could have done for animals stranded and dying.
Unfortunately, "according to 2005 income tax records, the year of Katrina, the HSUS only dispersed $8.6 million in grants for its worldwide grants base including its major grants to Louisiana groups."
"I can't for the life of me see any issue here," said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the HSUS, when the Louisiana Attorney General announced an official inquiry into the misuse (well, disuse) of funds. So, let's see whether we can see the issue, and perhaps explain it to him.
Kris Wartelle, the spokeswoman for then-acting Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr., said that her office had "received complaints that even though the organization had raised millions of dollars, it had not done enough to reunite Katrina evacuees with their pets."
It can't have done enough. "Enough" would have meant spending the funds raised. Now, some detractors will tell you that they spent a truly paltry amount: the most vociferous are often connected to Richard Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom, which is itself tied to the meat lobby.
The most reliable accounting comes from the HSUS itself, whose tax forms have been analyzed by AR-HR (Animal Rights or Human Responsibility), a group that makes a show of keeping a rigorous financial distance from the agriculture, fur and pet industries (and stresses that it has no relationship to the CCF). Whether you enjoy the show or not is up to you. AR-HR is not well-loved by animal rights organizations, because they're opposed to any flavor of that stance. So, if you're that way inclined, you'll want to check their calculations carefully. The tax records are on their site. I have found nothing in their summaries and conclusions that contradicts the documents.
This group deduces: "Even by the numbers in the HSUS' own article, the funds dispersed for the purposes of Katrina related activities total just under $18 million or 52% of the funds. The remaining amount, over $16.5 million dollars cannot be accounted for through HSUS provided documentation through investigation of its tax records."
In humanspeak: Wayne's people, by their own account, spent just over half of their Katrina loot on Katrina.
So what about the other 48%? That's not exactly a trivial amount: 16.5 million dollars, donated by ordinary citizens expressly to help the animal population devastated by Katrina. Where is it?
We don't know. And why don't we know? Because the Attorney General of Louisiana stopped investigating.
The circumstances under which the Attorney General's investigations came to an end are shrouded in mystery. The two least credible sources, when it comes to the HSUS, are the Center for Consumer Freedom, and Wikipedia. The Center for Consumer Freedom has, of course, a very deliberate agenda. The Wikipedia article about the HSUS has been subtly edited by John Schiff, a neutrality-compromised editor I've written about here and here. The truth lies somewhere between the CCF's tarring and Schiff's whitewashing, so let's start with those two extremes.
The suggestion that the inquiry ended abruptly when the HSUS offered to build a relatively cheap shelter in Louisiana seems to have been planted in a local news report by David Martosko of the CCF. The HSUS certainly insists upon this: "This story emerged straight out of the playbook of the deceptively named Center for Consumer Freedom, a front-group for tobacco, alcohol and agribusiness interests."
The deceptively named Humane Society of the United States feels pretty strongly here, and so does John Schiff, who doesn't work for them but spends a huge amount of his time -- without payment, of course -- discrediting their enemies. Schiff has edited out any reference to the quid pro quo on Wikipedia. Schiff announces proudly that he has "removed unsourced, speculative claims." He admonishes a less neutral editor: "Please use sources and neutral POV."
After a bit of back and forth, John Schiff manages to insert the canonical unsourced sentence, "The investigation was subsequently closed with no finding of wrongdoing." This remark, sans source, has stood the test of time. The words "with no finding of wrongdoing" briefly disappeared, yes, but Schiff reinserted them, not realizing, apparently, that they were now linked -- irony of ironies -- to a CCF document. (A document which, needless to say, supported this statement in no way whatsoever, and in fact said all sorts of truly rotten things about the HSUS.) All very puzzling.
This link was mangled -- perhaps deliberately, perhaps not -- so that it now reads "dead link," despite being very much alive. (An editor named "Gobonobo" -- whose name I adore -- removed a single crucial underscore, thereby killing the link, and triumphantly declared it dead.)
To get to the bottom of this, we know that we're going to have to search that vast unmapped territory that lies between CCF's planted news story and Schiff's unsourced assertion.
"Please use sources," sniffs Schiff. So, let us use sources. And I promise a POV just as neutral as John Schiff's.
Technically, "no finding of wrongdoing" is perhaps sort of correct. It sure implies, however, that the inquiry evaluated all of the evidence, decided that everything was just fine, and issued a statement to that effect. Doesn't it?
That, sadly, is not what happened. What happened, inexplicably, is that the investigation simply ended. No, they didn't find anything wrong, because they stopped looking. But you and I have found something wrong, simply by reading this very article: 16.5 million dollars remains unaccounted for.
Note that "no finding of wrongdoing" is not quite the same thing as "a finding of no wrongdoing." Slippery business, language.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me present: a source. It is the most reliable source I've found thus far when it comes to analyzing this sordid affair. Animal rights activists won't be happy with it, and will excoriate me for relying upon it: the aforementioned AR-HR (Animal Rights or Human Responsibility). The numbers, note, aren't from them -- they're from the HSUS's own documents. I take no position on the organization itself, but their analysis of the numbers is sound. This is the final word, and it's not all that satisfyingly final:
There can't be much, if any, activity related to Katrina affected animals stated as the original purpose of the fundraising. If the remaining 48% of the money wasn't been used for Katrina animals, then what has it been used for? Unfortunately, the inquiry was called off shortly after the announcement of the HSUS championed cockfighting bill being passed into law. As a result, these questions go unanswered and so they will remain.
There you have it. The money was never spent, and we don't know why. The investigation into this was never completed. Why? We don't know. Remember how the words "accountability" and "competence" started menacing the Bush administration, around the time of Katrina? Some say the administration never really recovered, after those words -- punctuated often by question marks -- just wouldn't go away.
So how come the HSUS recovered? I mean, recovered sufficiently that they're now asking you, with a big unembarrassed smile, to dig deep and give them funds so that they can take care of all those poor beleaguered puppies and kittens left stranded by big nasty Hurricane Sandy.
How did they survive not simply that debacle, but also such incidents as the Fay scandal, in which they raised money using the plight of a maimed pit bull that they hadn't rescued, weren't taking care of, and at one time would have killed? Why is that smile not even a touch sheepish, after their repulsive embrace of Michael Vick? Their new spokesman, who tortured dogs to death?
When it comes to weathering storms, in particular, they are a fundraising phenom. Wayne Pacelle's impishly-misnamed organization has a solid track record when it comes to exploiting hurricanes, riding out the disgrace, and living to smile through the next one. They made off like bandits after Katrina, but they also got a nice publicity jolt from Hurricane Gustav.
The No Kill Advocacy Center's Nathan Winograd tells the story:
In 2008, MuttShack Rescue completed a large-scale rescue of animals in New Orleans because of Hurricane Gustav. Instead of supporting the effort, HSUS claimed the rescue as their own. According to MuttShack: "[We] just completed the largest animal evacuation in the history of New Orleans. After its completion, HSUS drove their trucks up in front of the whole deal, shot some footage and has posted it [on their website] as their own rescue."
Most excellent. And here we have Hurricane Sandy, another perfect storm.
Look: who am I to tell you how to spend your money. I will say this, however. If I had cash myself -- I never do -- and was concerned about animals left in peril by a vicious storm, I'd spend my money locally.
Much as I love the HSUS and their efforts during Gustav and Katrina -- heck of a job, Wayne -- I'd probably find some reputable local organization committed to No Kill: in New York, for instance, someone along the lines of Bobbi and the Strays or Urgent Pets on Death Row, Inc.
I wouldn't want my money to be anything like the cash that those rescues in New Orleans never received, because it went to the slyly-named Humane Society of the United States.
Where it semi-evaporated.