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June 01, 2005

PETA may have done something defensible (or even good!)

Steve Gilliard thinks the animal rights group PETA crossed the line when it hired Lisa Leitten as an undercover agent. Working under her real name, Leitten used her MA in animal psychology and her work experience at a Florida primate sanctuary to secure employment at three corporate animal facilities over the last 3 years.

A Yahoo news headline refers to her as a PETA spy, the bane of companies. So far, according to the article, Leitten has been a friend to at least one corporation, namely PetSmart, which decided it wasn't economically advantageous to retain ties to Iams, a USDA-certified animal abuser.

Her first job began in May 2002, a nine-month stint at a Missouri lab that produced pet food for Proctor & Gamble's Iams label. There, she claimed she found animals that were injured, had untended wounds and receiving unnecessary surgeries. Leitten documented her findings, quietly left the job and let PETA make her allegations public.

Retailer PetSmart and Iams severed contracts with the lab, which laid off nearly half of its workers. Its owner accused PETA of playing on corporations' fear of negative publicity rather than exposing legitimate concerns.

By July of 2003, Leitten resurfaced at her next assignment, a wildlife refuge in Amarillo, Texas. PETA said it had received complaints of tigers and monkeys housed in waste-laden cages and being fed spoiled food.

Six months later, Leitten slipped out of Texas, and PETA held another news conference with another damning video. A subsequent USDA review backed up the group's assertions

For what she says was her final assignment, Leitten was hired as a primate technician for Covance.

Leitten's camera work, and the report issued by PETA, depict frightened monkeys being yanked from their cages and handled roughly by aggressive, often cursing technicians.

She says she watched animals suffer with festering wounds, and that tubes were forced into their sinuses for research medicine to be administered, causing them to scream, bleed and vomit. Monkeys were housed alone in cages that were hosed down with the animals still inside, dripping and shivering, she said.

Laurene Isip, a Covance spokeswoman, says the company has complied with animal welfare regulations for its half-century in business, and doubted the credibility of PETA's charges.

Here's where Yahoo starts cherrypicking from the expert carton:

The company called Leitten's actions illegal. Legal experts agree.

"As an employee she has a legal right to be there, but she's there to fulfill and execute on the tasks and responsibilities give to her by her employer. She's not there to fulfill her own private agenda," said Scott Vernick, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in professional responsibility and legal ethics.

Bruce Weinstein, who has written four books on ethics, said even noble ends do not justify deceptive means.

Legal experts agree? Well, if Leitten signed any kind of confidentiality agreement, the article doesn't say so. Furthermore, even if she had, she might well have been entitled to blow the whistle on any illegal activities she observed during her employment at Covance.

Steve thinks that Leitten and PETA are liable for her actions.

When PETA is sued and bankupted, do not be surprised. Because this is illegal, and could be considered criminal fraud if they got really nasty. Zealots act as if the law doesn't apply to them. I predict they will find out that this isn't the case.

But why should we assume so? Leitten and PETA might be be liable if she signed a non-disclosure agreement, divulged trade secrets, and/or exposed her employer's legal operations with malicious intent. There is no evidence that she committed any kind of fraud in order to get her jobs. Her name and her qualifications were real. As Steve notes, surreptitious recording is legal in some states but illegal in others--so, it's unclear to me whether Leitten broke any laws. Obviously, if she faked any of this footage or caused any of the abuse she filmed, she a fraud and an industrial saboteur who deserves to be punished.

I'm not a PETA supporter. Steve is absolutely right to question PETA's credibility, given the the group's history of extremism and its taste for vulgar and dangerous publicity stunts.

I'm a strong advocate of animal research, but I'm also a proponent of stringent ethical safeguards, especially for primate studies. If corporations are cutting corners on animal welfare, I sure as hell want to know about it.

Given the source of the latest revelations, I'm not prepared to take the claims at face value. Maybe Leitten captured illegal or unethical activities film, and maybe she didn't. Even if she filmed legal activities, I'd like to hear Covance justify its "best practices" to its shareholders and the public.

Maybe Leitten even committed civil disobedience in order to get her footage. If so, I admire her courage.

In Steve's second post, he objects to PETA's handling of the tapes. It seems they released them immediately instead of turning them over to a fact-checking team or to legal authorities, a decision that might be morally or legally questionable.

However, the fact remains that Leitten went under cover to expose publicly relevant information about the business practices of major corporations. She wasn't digging for celebrity gossip or the scoop on Apple's product pipleline. She was looking for either violations of animal protection law, or evidence that current legal standards wouldn't be publicly acceptable if they were widely known. For that, she deserves our thanks.

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Comments

Let me see if I've got this straight, the government is not enforcing it's laws, so people who try to enforce the law are themselves outside the law...well at least for animals. Okay, got it.

Let's see what happens if we were to apply this standard to people.

You're walking down the street in your neighborhood and a car stops in front of a group of children. A man gets out and grabs one of the children and throws a screaming child into the car. Your notice a cop coming in the opposite direction, he's got a cell phone in his hand coffee in the other and he's driving with his fore arms, he slows, but then continues. You're a young girl who weighs 130 lbs dripping wet, but knowing that the history in these cases is not good you decide to act. You go through the drivers side window and grab the perp's neck hard enough to injure his spine and stop the crime in progress.

Are you:

a] A vigilant citizen, doing all you can to uphold the law?

Or:

b] A vigilante, a person who tries to enforce the law and should be prosecuted for injuring an innocent man?

Of course Steve Gilliard, wouldn't be caught dead saying our young heroine was wrong, not because it involved children...no...because it did not involve corporate interest. Morality, so fluid when it comes to moneyed interests.

I only know enough labor law to be dangerous...

In most cases an employee has no obligations at all to the employer (absent some contract to not disclose, etc). For instance, an employee has absolutely no obligation even to work!

If someone fails to work the employer can fire them, of course, but they can't say the employee has a legal or moral obligation to work. You can't be sued for not working; you can only be fired.

In particular, it is crazy to claim that an employee has a legal/moral obligation to accept the employer's agenda. Taking a job does not mean you give up your free will and mindlessly accept what the employer wants you to do. Employers might want this but they have no legal basis for saying this is the way it is.

"As an employee she has a legal right to be there, but she's there to fulfill and execute on the tasks and responsibilities give to her by her employer. She's not there to fulfill her own private agenda," said Scott Vernick, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in professional responsibility and legal ethics.

This seems odd to me. At no point was any evidence presented that she wasn't doing the job she was hired to do. Is this lawyer arguing that people can only do their job tasks at work and absolutely nothing else? If so, then everyone with more cognitive abilites than a stapler is in the wrong.

Is this lawyer arguing that people can only do their job tasks at work and absolutely nothing else?

good point!
i think a lot of blog commenters(and bloggers) would disagree vehemently, taking lots of time from their 'job tasks' to point out exactly why not...

As someone who has (in my past life as a lab rat) endured threats from both ALF and PETA, I am far from a fan of "animal rights" organizations. The veracity of many of their assertions is questionable as are their tactics. This being said, I have to disagree with Vernick assertion that she did something wrong by documenting/reporting actions she believed were out of compliance with applicable regulations and guidelines. Yes, her agenda was to find/uncover inappropriate activity and I would not be suprised to find she was hell bent & determined to do so (I also highly doubt that if someone in her position found full compliance and animals that were treated well they'd provide any comment to that regard); however, if her allegations are accurate she has a moral/ethical responsibility to act. Since she didn't need the job at Covance, she would certainly have added to her (and PETA's) credibility if she had taken her concerns to management and documented their reaction/corrective action planned and taken (if any) and then reported the findings.

As someone who was shocked when (at a previous company) my Pre-Clin folks reported one of "our" monkeys died (completely unexpected) at what I'm pretty sure was that same Covance facility, I can tell you that there are many of us in Drug Development that want and need to know about any and all infractions (and not just because it puts our programs at risk).

I disagree that Leitten put herself at risk (a regular employee who blew the whistle would have put herself at risk) if her allegations are true; if they are not, then she did put herself at risk and should bear the full consequences of her actions.

Covance has no legitimate recourse against as an "uncommitted" employee; she did not lie about her qualifications and they were responsible for vetting her as a potential employee prior to hiring her; if she was not performing her job adequately they could have fired her. The only legitimate course of action they would have is if her allegations are false and/or she instigation/was the cause of the infractions.

The so-called investigator has been "revealed" multiple times by publicity-hungry PETA. In reality, she created the footage that she reported by not fulfilling the duties these companies hired her to complete.
In the case of Iams, she was supposed to be taking care of the dogs and cats:
http://www.IamsTruth.com
Covance says the same thing happened with them.

Why should we take Iams' word for it rather than the USDA's? Are you claiming that Leitten faked the footage? Or that she abused those animals herself in order to get pictures of suppurating wounds and the like? I don't buy the accusation that she grossly neglected her own duties to create those images. Otherwise Iams would have fired her. If oversight is so lax that someone infiltrator can leave animals in filth and injure them undetected, Iams has a problem right there.

Like Ol Cranky says, if she faked anything or hurt any animals she's a despicable person who should be punished. PETA are a crazy, sketchy organization. I'm suspending judgment about the veracity of anything they or any of their agents has to say.

However, I don't see anything wrong with an employee videotaping activities that she fears are illegal. Whether PETA put her up to it or not is morally irrelevant.

I don't know - I think Steve makes some really excellent points about PETA. I'm inclined to agree with him - what PETA was wrong, and they clearly are an organization with an agenda. I think that PETA putting her up to it is exactly why this *is* morally relevant.

After all, I think I agree with Steve - if Focus on Family pulled the same type of stunt on the pornography industry, you'd likely cry foul.

PETA was wrong to do this, and Lisa Leitten is equally culpable.

I might be wildly wrong on this point, I'm no expert or even an amateur that's interested in legal matters, but doesn't standing around while your employer commits a crime in front of you count as aiding and abetting to some degree?

No, John, I wouldn't cry foul about Focus on the Family infiltrating Vivid. If a FFF dude got a job using his real name and his real measurements, I would feel the same about him as about the PETA girl.

Provided Mr. FFF faithfully discharged his duties, so to speak, I couldn't care less if he was telling all to the Focus on the Family. (Depending on what he filmed, he might break some copyright. But that would be the extent of Vivid's complaint against him.)

Of course, if the Focus on the Family guy deliberately contracted genital herpes and refused to wear a condom in order to frame Vivid for violating health laws, then he'd be an industrial saboteur and a criminal.

No double standards here.

I believe that Ms. Leitten may find herself up on criminal or civil charges (not specifically sure, not a lawyer). Every pharma company I have ever worked with (in fact, most manufacturers in general) have a standing policy of "no cameras." In fact, many facilities now confiscate cel-phones because of the pre-installed cameras that "may" get used. When you enter these facilities as a visitor, you are usually required to sign a "log book" which indicates that you are aware of the rules and will follow them.

While this rule is mainly to protect trade secrets, it is a standard one that every employee and visitor is expected to comply with, and is part of the employment contract. That means that even if you are well intentioned (i.e. had joined the company with every intention of working for the firm) and you witness some transgression, bringing a recording device on-site is specifically against the rules you agreed (in a contract) to, leaving you open to legal action (regardless of the "legality" of secret recording). If an illegal activity is observed, there are other recourses (reporting to the local authorities) that are available (if not as dramatic).

Add to that the fact that this woman went to work at the company specifically to find and record anything (even illegal activity), and I think she could be up for fraud charges.

That being said, I don't condone the alleged actions by the employers (OK, weaseling a bit here, but no "convictions" yet).

After all, I think I agree with Steve - if Focus on Family pulled the same type of stunt on the pornography industry, you'd likely cry foul.

Actually, if a member of FoF got a job in the porn industry and then revealed illegal and amoral treatment of the actors, no one here would cry foul, a lot of people would probably sya somehting along hte lines of "about time they did something useful" or complain aobut the way FoF would then use such an incident to argue making the porn industry inherently illegal, but no one would say they had no right to get a job that allowed them to do that, the only reason someone would say something like that is if they were for the mistreatement of pornstars or felt that the porn industry was allowed to grind people up and spit them out in the most inhumane way possible after using them.

I would like to hearby encourage Focus on the Family to send operatives undercover in the porn industry, and specifically target the big companies like Vivid and Wicked that are owned by even bigger media companies. First person accounts from porn stars have given us stories both about abuse and empowerment. It would be nice to know how the policies of the big players actually work with this.

Also, I would like someone to send operatives undercover to Tyson Chicken, primarily to see how the workers are treated, although I would like to know about the animals.

And Nike, and Wal-Mart, and...

Unlike other forms of vigilantism, such as violence against criminals, this kind of work invovles minor harms at worst, the kind of end that can easily be justified by the means. The worst the undercover agent does is withhold information and do some personal activities on company time. Although I've never done the former, I'm doing the latter right now.

Of course, she also damages the company by revealing their wrongdoings, but this is the moral good that justifies the means. (Here is the luxury of being a consequentialist. I can say "of course the end *sometimes* justifies the means.)

Moreover, if you believe as Plato does, that wrongdoers are actually benefitted by being brought to justice, then she is actually helping these companies.

Simply put, giving a monkey a superating wound is not a trade secret. No other company is going to think, "ah, that's how we should increase our margins! By torturing monkeys." This is not an issue of proprietary information or trade secrets. It's an issue of embarassing and possibly illegal information.

If these companies think that their practices are acceptable, they should tell Leitten "you show those videos to everyone. That is representative of our policy, and we stand by it." If they don't believe that their practices are acceptable, they shouldn't be engaging in them.

Simply put, if you have to lie to the consumer to get her to buy your product, perhaps your product isn't worth it to the consumer in question. See the Daniel Davies guide to avoiding bad projects. He makes a good case that the "well, they have to lie and cover up certain bits, but they're good overall" mentality can be dangerous. If these companies are really producing a wonderful product, and their treatment of animals is indispensibly necessary to producing that product, they should say, "yes, we engage in these practices. That is ultimately justified by the quality and affordability of our product, though." Lying to the customer about the processes used to produce your product is no more justified than lying to your customer about the reliability of your product. Would we be attacking someone who revealed that a shady used car dealer who was taking miles off of his cars' odometers?

Well but, Julian. And add me to the list of people who'd be delighted to see FoF infiltrate the porn industry for the purposes of exposing the mistreatment of actors. Would Steve take offense to a union activist taking a job with the intention of advocating for unionization amongst his fellow employees? Same situation--no overt fraud, an unmentioned substantive political agenda. The bosses shouldn't be torturing monkeys or union-busting.

This sounds like the least objectionable thing I've heard about PETA doing. Usually, they devote their energies to finding new ways to making the rest of us who are vegetarian or concerned about animal welfare seem like crackpots by association with their exceedingly lame stunts. In this case, they're actually trying to find and document specific cases of animal cruelty. Good for them.

I'm not a PETA supporter. Steve is absolutely right to question PETA's credibility, given the the group's history of extremism and its taste for vulgar and dangerous publicity stunts.

So now 'extremism' means a lack of credibility?

what PETA was wrong, and they clearly are an organization with an agenda.

Yes, they certainly have an agenda. And?

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