Call it the case of the man who wasn't booked.
On New Year's Day 2014, a band of activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) blocked the SeaWorld float at the Rose Parade to protest the aquatic park's practice of keeping killer whales on display. In all, 16 were hauled away by sheriff's deputies and police in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, California, and taken to jail.
Except for one guy.
"Though he was arrested and he was handcuffed and taken to the Pasadena Police Department like the rest of us, he was let go at some point," said Lisa Lange, PETA's senior vice president, who was one of those jailed that day. "And we only realized that when we got out, and he was nowhere to be found."
When PETA eventually got the volunteer on the phone, he said he was released early and picked up by a friend. He told his fellow activists the cops let him go because he had forgotten his identification — "which sounded incredibly improbable," Lange told VICE News.
Those suspicions led to the discovery of a false ID, a trail of inflammatory social-media posts, a post office box rented by a Sea World security chief — and eventually, the exposure of an agent provocateur within the animal-rights ranks, she said. The volunteer known as "Thomas Jones" turned out to be a SeaWorld employee, one PETA accuses of trying to incite illegal acts against the park in an effort to discredit its critics.
And Thursday, PETA sued the Pasadena Police Department to get it to cough up records of how "Jones" — whom it identified as a SeaWorld human-resources worker, Paul McComb — skated after the Rose Parade. Lange said the event was crawling with police in riot gear, suggesting that "Jones" had led them to believe a more serious threat was in the works — and causing authorities to devote extra public resources to the PETA float.
"The Pasadena Police Department exists to protect the public, not to protect an animal-abusing corporation," she told VICE News. "So we really want to get to the bottom of it."
SeaWorld has been trying to beat back a PETA-led boycott and a wave of bad press that accompanied the highly critical 2013 documentary Blackfish, which focused on the treatment of orcas at the parks and the death of a trainer in 2010. The company's stock price has slumped to nearly half of what it was three years ago, and it launched an aggressive PR campaign to counter the criticism in March.
After initially telling news outlets it didn't discuss security issues, SeaWorld announced Wednesday that it was conducting an internal investigation led by an outside lawyer and had placed "the employee in question" on paid leave.
"The allegations made yesterday against a SeaWorld employee are very concerning. These allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated," CEO Joel Manby said in a written statement.
Lange doesn't buy it.
"It is our belief that they had full and complete knowledge of what he was up to," she said. SeaWorld — and its shareholders — would be better off spending the resources used to attack animal-rights activists "creating a coastal seaside sanctuary for these poor animals," she said.
PETA has conducted its own stings of companies it suspects are abusing animals. It's also been the target of earlier corporate skullduggery, along with other activist groups. Journalist and author Will Potter told VICE News the SeaWorld flap is only the latest in a long history of attempts by businesses to spy on their critics, with corporations increasingly willing "to assume their own police and investigatory powers."
"The big difference is that at least with the FBI, there is some ostensible oversight and accountability that's possible, since it's part of an official government bureaucracy," said Potter, whose book Green is the New Red documents the history ofsurveillance of the environmental movement.
"You can get access to records. You can hold a congressional inquiry. You can have these different channels to find out what's actually happening," Potter said. "With these private companies, that just doesn't exist. There's even less accountability and less oversight, which is really dangerous."
Onetime SeaWorld orca trainer John Hargrove, who quit the company in 2012 and appeared prominently in Blackfish, said he's not surprised by the allegations PETA is leveling.
"This company has a lot of money, and with a lot of money, you can do a lot of things. Corruption is nothing new, and we've seen corruption over things for people with far less money and far less influence," Hargrove told VICE News. "I think they are truly capable of anything."
He said SeaWorld executives have a "cult-like mentality" that leads them to lash out against critics — often using surrogate voices online, but sometimes directly. In his case, after he wrote a book about his experiences, SeaWorld distributed a nearly 5-year-old video clip showing a drunken Hargrove repeatedly using racial slurs in a speakerphone conversation with a friend.
Hargrove said his language in the video "is never appropriate," adding, "I never want to come across as trying to make excuses." But he said the video "had absolutely nothing to do with me being a killer whale trainer or the content of my book."
"I know them very well, and I've seen this play out with trainers in the past," he said. "I was prepared for it to happen to me, and that's exactly what happened to me. That's the price you pay for speaking out."
In its lawsuit, PETA states Pasadena police "orchestrated a secretive arrest" of the SeaWorld mole — releasing him without charge and scrubbing his name from records — and refuses to release public records relating to the case. The group says that when it sought public records from the department, it was told that "Jones" had been "released in the field." A later response informed PETA that the department could withhold information "related to complaints and investigations by local police agencies."
Pasadena municipal spokesman William Boyer declined comment on the newly-filed lawsuit, but said the city had complied with the state Public Records Act. Of the others arrested at the Rose Parade, 13 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a fine; charges against the rest were dropped, PETA spokesman David Perle said.
Potter said corporate espionage efforts like the one PETA is trumpeting are typically outsourced to third-party companies, coming to light only "when they screw up, or when some documents have been leaked by a whistleblower." But he said that the suspicion can be corrosive to social movements, and said activists should avoid being "paralyzed by fear."
"On the one hand, it's great to have this finally exposed, and we need to know when corporations are using these kind of dirty tricks," Potter told VICE News. "But at the same time, it has a chilling effect, and it makes people wonder what other spies are out there."
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