Case against humane society goes forward

KEALAKEKUA — The vitriol surrounding accusations that the Hawaii Island Humane Society planned and engaged in a smear campaign against Big Island Dog Rescue seeped into Third Circuit Court Friday, where Judge Ronald Ibarra rejected an attempt to have the case dismissed.

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KEALAKEKUA — The vitriol surrounding accusations that the Hawaii Island Humane Society planned and engaged in a smear campaign against Big Island Dog Rescue seeped into Third Circuit Court Friday, where Judge Ronald Ibarra rejected an attempt to have the case dismissed.

Much of the case involves around screenshots of emails BIDR alleges show senior Humane Society staff laying out a campaign to paint BIDR in a negative light while forming its own campaign to distract the public from the society’s euthanasia numbers.

BIDR’s suit claims interference for business advantage, appropriation, invasion of privacy and other charges. Named as defendants are HIHS, the society’s executive director Donna Whitaker, veterinarian and HIHS board member Elizabeth Jose, Deborah Baker and Kathy Kim Peters.

The two sides have been at bitter ends publicly for over a year regarding euthanasia and adoption methods. Friday’s hearing reflected that before the judge ruled it was too early to toss the case out.

“We’re really excited,” Tasi Autele, founder of BIDR, told West Hawaii Today after the hearing. “Honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all.”

Autele didn’t attend the hearing but was notified through the attorneys after the ruling. He said he’s glad to see the issue that’s played out in public go to court, where only facts, not rumors, win out.

“They’re grasping at straws,” he said of HIHS attempting to have the suit dismissed. “They just throw anything against the wall to see what sticks.”

While BIDR is suing HIHS, HIHS sought to dismiss the case, and asked that the BIDR and its attorney be censured for bringing the action.

That latter motion “is largely an attempt to get the case dismissed in a stronger way by threatening the attorneys for doing their job,’ said Paul Sulla Jr., an attorney for BIDR.

“Let’s keep this civil, not personal,” said Ibarra, who ruled, at this point in the case, a dismissal would be premature. He did leave open the possibility of a dismissal in the future, after more details have come out.

An expert for HIHS entered an affadavit before they hearing saying that, not only were the emails not sent, none were sent in the time listed as when the alleged emails went out.

Another sharp moment came after attorney Johnathan Bolton, representing one of the named human society parties, talked about the comparative ease of preparing a false screenshot.

He introduced an email exchange he had generated in 15 minutes, which supposedly showed the court and Santa Claus communicating.

“We all know that emails can be fabricated. I did this in about 15 minutes and I am not a criminal mastermind,” he said.

That caught some ire from Ibarra.

“Don’t drag the court into this,” he said.

This was at least partially a response to Sulla’s statement that the plaintiffs had graphic designers review the screenshots, looking for evidence of fabrication.

None was discovered, Sulla said, including a survey looking for misaligned pixels and mismatched signatures.

Bolton characterized the case as an attempt to intimidate the humane society, as the case named people individually and the plaintiffs immediately went to West Hawaii Today, which ran an article on the complaint, in an attempt to smear the group.

“This is stuff that will survive on the internet for years,” he said.

The people involved are engaged in a constant flow of people asking about the messages, Bolton said, and have to defend themselves.

Big Island rescue organizations have been at odds with the humane society for years, saying the organization needs to do more to reduce euthanasia of the more than 3,000 dogs it puts to death each year. The society maintains it has taken steps to increase adoptions and has held the public responsible for becoming more engaged with good practices like spaying and neutering.

BIDR formed last January and airlifted 81 dogs to mainland shelters in its first four months. Many of its transports were animals it had adopted from the humane society. But last summer, HIHS temporarily suspended dealings with BIDR and other rescue groups while it wrote up a legal contract that specified liability, reporting on adopted animals, treatment during transport and other legalities. BIDR and its supporters picketed the Kona shelter in July to protest the moratorium.

Part of BIDR’s efforts now will focus on identifying the person who provided the emails originally, Sulla said.

That person remains unknown to all parties involved in the case, which seemed strange to Bolton.

“They never asked, for example, this anonymous sender who you are and how the heck they got the screenshots,” said Bolton.

The HIHS side is looking for its next step.

“We’re disappointed, of course, with the judge’s decision,” said Peter Olson, attorney for HIHS.

However, they will continue their efforts to have the case dismissed. After all, he said, the evidence does not support BIDR’s claims.

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They may be able to have it dismissed later under the summary judgment, which allows the judge to consider evidence both sides have introduced, he said.

The officers named in the case were present in court and declined to comment following the hearing.

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