Ringling Brothers' CEO Testifies in Spying Trial
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Next, a case involving alleged spies, animal activists, former CIA agents and a three-ring circus. This week, Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Ringling Brothers, will take the stand in a civil trial. Ringling Brothers is accused of spying on the animal rights group PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is seeking $1.8 million in damages.
Steve Inskeep says the circus and the animal activists are longtime antagonists.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
PETA accuses Kenneth Feld and the circus company of employing undercover operatives to infiltrate and spy on PETA, as well as other animal rights groups. NPR's Jack Speer has been covering this case and joins us.
JACK SPEER reporting:
Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So isn't this case based on a 1956 movie? It sounds, you know...
SPEER: It really does. I mean, this case is something straight out of a John Grisham novel in some ways. There are accusations that go beyond mere spying here. We've actually got court documents that were filed by PETA in this case, accusing Kenneth Feld or running an extensive campaign of dirty tricks, burglary, wiretapping, all part of an effort to undermine the group's activities.
According to court documents, and these are documents filed PETA, this campaign actually began around 1987, lasted for 10 years. Feld hired a private investigator who in turn hired at least five people to penetrate these animal rights groups, either as employees or volunteers. And for about 10 years, these people reported back to Feld on what the animal rights organizations were doing.
INSKEEP: So where does the CIA come into all of this?
SPEER: Well, Feld hired a former CIA deputy director as an advisor. Claire George was his name. And George was involved in a campaign to spy on PETA and some of these other animal rights groups.
INSKEEP: Okay, so we're waiting for the CEO, Kenneth Feld, to testify in his own defense. The trial obviously has been going on for a long time. What's happened so far?
SPEER: A lot of the evidence is centered around Charles Smith. And he's the former vice president of finance at Ringling Brothers. He basically has defended the actions, saying Ringling Brothers had to do what it did to protect itself and its audiences. There were concerns about radical elements within these groups which he felt might be prepared to do something terrible.
Smith also accused PETA of doing some of the same things it's now suing over: hiring people to pose as willing circus workers so they could get inside these groups and document animal abuse or what the groups say is abuse. Ringling Brothers, by the way, has said it does not mistreat animals.
INSKEEP: So the former CEO of Ringling Brothers is going to get up for what is, in effect, the ultimate circus performance. You could look at it that way anyway. Is he much of a performer himself?
SPEER: He comes from a very flamboyant family. His family, in fact, the Feld family has owned Ringling Brothers for about 40 years now.
PETA's lawyer has been presenting document after document in this case to show that Feld was involved in this spy operation. Feld's lawyer, Thomas Cawley, has been reminding jurors that this is a civil case and that the defendant has to show damages and that PETA's membership continued to grow during this period. So he's essentially saying, hey, where's the foul here? And he's also told the jury that the real reason for this lawsuit is that PETA actually wanted publicity.
INSKEEP: NPR's Jack Speer, thanks very much.
SPEER: Steve, you're welcome.
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