By DAVID MARTOSKO - Special to The Telegraph Sunday, Marcy 14, 2010
What do Ponzi schemes, corrupt cops and organized-crime families have in common? They’ve all been taken down under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. This is a law that can result in enhanced criminal and civil penalties for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization.
But the latest RICO defendants aren’t wiseguys from a real-life Club Ba-Da-Bing. They’re a handful of animal rights groups, their lawyers and a pay-for-play federal court witness.
Last month the owners of the popular Ringling Brothers circus filed a federal RICO lawsuit against the Humane Society of the United States, two of its lawyers, a Washington, D.C. law firm, and several other animal rights groups. The defendants are accused of committing bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and money laundering, all in a nine-year scheme to prosecute a bogus elephant-abuse lawsuit against the circus.
These are pachyderm-sized charges. But the evidence is compelling. In December, federal Judge Emmet Sullivan dismissed the activists’ 2000 elephant suit, ruling that the plaintiffs paid more than $190,000 to a former Ringling elephant “barn helper” in exchange for his completely unreliable testimony.
The judge wrote that the animal rights groups, including the anti-circus Fund for Animals (which is now part of HSUS), cleverly disguised their payola through a nonprofit “wildlife advocacy” charity founded and operated by their lawyers. (These lawyers now have to find their own defense attorneys to deal with the RICO lawsuit.)
The primary purpose of these payments, says Judge Sullivan, was “to keep [the witness] involved with the litigation.” Judges tend to frown on paying witnesses what amounts to a secret retainer.
Anyone who’s seen a PETA protest up close will find it utterly unremarkable that animal activists would knowingly fudge the truth. But it’s telling that these groups would do just about anything — including buying themselves a federal court witness — to get their way.
The Ringling case (and its swift-justice RICO fallout) is just one piece of a disturbing trend of animal rights groups replacing public persuasion with courtroom strong-arm tactics.
Since the vegan firebrand Wayne Pacelle took the reins at HSUS in 2004, for instance, that organization has beefed-up its legal department ten-fold, from three lawyers to 30.
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