HIHS lawsuit response claims defamation

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KAILUA-KONA — Defamation, malice, and cunning.

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KAILUA-KONA — Defamation, malice, and cunning.

That’s how a Hawaii Island Humane Society response is characterizing a lawsuit filed in mid-April by Big Island Dog Rescue. The society’s response and counterclaim — as well as documents filed by two other people named in the BIDR suit — are essentially putting the shoe on the other foot, accusing the rescue group of the same tactics that BIDR says prompted its own legal action.

HIHS seeks damages to cover the blow it endured to its reputation when BIDR used faked emails to file its suit and defamed the society in other ways, according to the counterclaim.

“BIDR has embarked upon a vindictive and wholly unjustified campaign of harassment against (HIHS),” the counterclaim reads.

At the heart of the issue is a brawl over euthanasia, with both sides now taking off the gloves in the legal arena. BIDR claims the Humane Society is entrenched in brutal and antiquated methods of dealing with animal overpopulation, and that the group has employed underhanded tactics to keep from changing its ways — including smearing and conspiring against a rescue group that it sees as competition for public favor and donations.

But HIHS says the dirty tactics, harassment and misrepresentations are actually coming from the other side. Its assertions are laid out in legal documents responding to a BIDR lawsuit claiming the society and its supporters over the past year obstructed shipments of dogs to mainland shelters, tainted the rescue group’s business relationships, conspired to run background checks on its members and stole credit for dog shipments — activities whose planning is apparently laid out in a series of emails between the HIHS director, a board member and supporters.

Only, those emails are complete fakes, according to the Humane Society’s response, which goes on to sketch what it says are a number of other distortions and outright lies by the rescue group.

BIDR misrepresented HIHS practices and policies on euthanasia of animals in social media postings, press releases, statements, emails and verbally at two Hawaii County Council meetings, according to the response and counterclaim.

On or about July 16, 2015, BIDR or its representatives fabricated emails supposedly sent from or to HIHS Executive Director Donna Whitaker and board member Elizabeth Jose, according to the filing.

The rescue group posted a fabricated newspaper article on Facebook last November falsely accusing the HIHS of sabotaging a pilot project for shipping dogs to mainland shelters, the documents say. In April, the rescue group sent out a press release falsely accusing HIHS of misconduct in euthanizing animals, the same documents claim.

The counterclaim seeks injunctive relief from what it calls an ongoing pattern of intimidation by the rescue group.

“BIDR’s continuous harassment of (HIHS) has caused it to suffer and continue to suffer damages, distress and imminent and irreparable injury to their public image and reputation,” according to the counterclaim.

A hearing has been set for July 8 in front of Third Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra.

BIDR launched in January 2014, and initially was able to strike up a friendly agreement with the Humane Society to adopt three dogs a week and ship them to the mainland. That number increased to six a week, and BIDR founder Tasi Autele declared he could ship so many dogs to the mainland that the Humane Society would no longer have to euthanize the more than 3,000 dogs it puts to sleep each year. Then the relationship started to go south around mid-year, with the Humane Society suspending its adopts to rescue groups and BIDR supporters picketing the Kona shelters with signs that said things like “Why die ‘em when you can fly ‘em?”

Humane Society officials said they temporarily suspended operating with BIDR because they were concerned about the safety of the dogs going off island without the benefit of a legal contract and tracking. To hear BIDR and Autele tell it, the society — which depends partly on favorable public sentiment and donations along with a $1.9 million annual animal control contract with the county — feared it was poised to lose public support in favor of this trendier, more humane and photogenic alternative.

The bad blood culminated April 15 with a BIDR lawsuit based in part on emails that seem to show HIHS and supporters plotting a smear campaign.

Debbie Baker and Kathy Kim Peters, also named in the suit, filed separate responses via their attorneys denying the allegations. The HIHS response and counterclaim by Honolulu attorneys Johnathan Bolton and Scott Shishido essentially shrug off the BIDR’s suit, calling it “outrageous unsupported allegations without specific claims.”

Besides being based on fabricated evidence, BIDR’s suit is vague in its claims of an alleged whisper campaign by the society and fails to show how it damaged BIDR, according to Baker’s response. The suit also doesn’t substantiate that defamatory statements were made by Baker, the document says.

“The HIHS, Donna Whitaker and Dr. Jose intend to vigorously defend themselves against the spurious allegations of the complaint,” attorney Shawn Nakoa said in an email. “Regarding the credibility of BIDR’s claims, the counterclaim speaks for itself.”

The emails referenced in the lawsuit are in pdf documents, which Autele said were sent to him by a whistleblower within the society. Autele has declined to give specifics because of the ongoing case, but said the documents are not fake. Nakoa declined recently to comment on whether HIHS would open its servers so that an independent forensic technician could trace the source of the emails.

BIDR circulated photos earlier this month showing a HIHS pickup truck parked at a landfill, and images of plastic bags at the landfill containing the carcasses of dead dogs.

“BIDR has only ever embarked on bringing to light the actual truth about HIHS practices and policies on their abysmal euthanasia statistics. We don’t need to color it in any way; their own statistics prove how bad they really are,” BIDR board chairman Thad Smith said on Tuesday.

“I think the statistics and recent dump pictures speak for themselves,” he said.

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Nakoa confirmed that euthanized animals are disposed of in landfills.

“This longstanding practice falls under the guidance of the Hawaii County Police Department and is the responsibility of HIHS under the provisions of our animal control contract,” Nakoa said. “As an open admission shelter, the Hawaii Island Humane Society accepts all animals, taking in over 14,000 annually and does not turn any animal away. Island residents and rescue groups adopt thousands of these animals every year. Many thousands more are left behind for the county, and ultimately HIHS, to dispose of. Sadly, euthanasia is the most humane solution for thousands of unhealthy and/or unwanted animals islandwide.”

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