by Jeff Stein
August 30, 2001
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Why would the head of Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey hire a former top CIA honcho to torment a hapless freelance writer for eight years?
On a gloomy Veterans Day in 1998, Janice Pottker answered an unexpected knock on the door of her home in Potomac, Md., a woodsy, upscale suburb of Washington. Standing there was a man she'd never seen before, a private detective who introduced himself as Tim Tieff. He told Pottker, a freelance writer married to a senior government official, that he had a discreet message from Charles F. Smith, a former top executive with Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circuses, Disney Shows on Ice, and other subsidiaries that make it the largest live entertainment company in the world.
Smith wanted to see her, he said.
It had to have been startling news for Pottker, who had written a controversial, 11,000-word piece on the circus and its colorful owners, Washington's Feld family, for a local business magazine in 1990. Her piece had recounted the Feld family's Horatio Alger-like story, but it had also exposed some unpleasant secrets about the famously tight-lipped Felds -- such as a bitter feud that had broken out between the two chief heirs, and the bisexuality of the family's patriarch, Irvin Feld. The circus had refused to talk to her ever since.
Ever since, Pottker had been trying, and failing, to get a book off the ground about the circus. But nothing had ever seemed to jell. Promising magazine assignments about the circus's questionable treatment of its performing children and the care of its animals had been derailed. Congressional and Labor Department interest in the subjects, which she'd spurred, evaporated. Now, out of the blue, a former top Feld official had sent a message saying he would like to meet with her. Would she agree?
In a New York minute. For years, Smith had been the right-hand man of Ken Feld, who had inherited the circus when his entrepreneurial father died in 1984. But Smith had been fired 18 months earlier. Now he was apparently ready to spill the beans.
The next day, Pottker sped off to meet Smith in nearby Chevy Chase. But if she had expectations that the former executive wanted to talk about child acrobats and performing elephants, she was in for an intensely personal shock. Smith was there to talk about what Feld Entertainment had done to her.
Over lunch, Smith recounted a campaign of surveillance and dirty tricks Feld had unleashed on her in the wake of her 1990 magazine piece in the now-defunct Regardie's magazine. Feld, he said, had hired people to manipulate her whole life over the past eight years. Feld had spent a lot of money on it, he said. He may have even tried to destroy her marriage. In fact, Pottker would eventually learn of a massive dirty tricks operation, involving former CIA officials and operatives, that would target Ringling enemies such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups, not just Pottker.
For proof, he told her to go to federal court in Alexandria, Va., and look at a suit he had filed against Ken Feld. In that suit, she would find an affidavit from a man named Clair George with attachments. Those, he told her, are all about you.
And then Smith left.
Spied on by a former CIA spy master:
The next day, Jan Pottker and her husband went to the Colonial-style courthouse in Alexandria and asked for Smith vs. Feld, civil action case number 98-357-A. They opened the files and found the affidavit Smith had described.
"My name is Clair E. George," it began. "I was the deputy director for operations (DDO) of the Central Intelligence Agency from July 1984 through December 1987 during which time I was responsible for the CIA's covert operations worldwide." In 1990, when Pottker's article was published, George declared, he was "a paid consultant to Feld Entertainment and its affiliates on international issues."
Pottker may not have known it -- she declined to be interviewed for this story -- but Clair George had been the CIA's third-highest ranking official until he was convicted of lying to a congressional committee in 1987. President Bush, the current president's father, himself a former CIA chief, had pardoned Clair George on Christmas Eve 1992.
Feld, George's affidavit continued, was "concerned" about Pottker's article, and so he set out to find out what else she was up to. "Subsequently," he wrote in the sworn statement, "I obtained an outline for a proposed unauthorized biography of Mr. Feld and his family by Pottker."
That, according to George's affidavit, is how it all began. Over the next eight years, "I undertook a series of efforts to find out what Pottker was doing and reported on the results of my work to Mr. Feld. I was paid for this work by Feld Entertainment or its affiliates. I prepared my reports in writing and presented them to Mr. Feld in personal meetings."
Spying on her, though, was the least of what George admitted. "I was assigned to make arrangements with a publishing house to publish a book by Pottker on another subject to divert her from her proposed book on Mr. Feld," George revealed. That was "an unauthorized biography of the Mars family, 'Crisis in Candyland, the Mars Story.'"
Pottker had, in fact, written "Crisis in Candyland," which was published in 1995 by the tiny and little-known National Press Books. It soon disappeared from the shelves.
"This," George continued, "had the result of diverting Pottker for a period from further efforts to publish materials that were of concern to Mr. Feld." At the same time, George said, he'd made arrangements to pay other writers for an "authorized ... favorable book concerning Mr. Feld," to be published should Pottker succeed, despite George's efforts, to get her own book on the circus published. It turned out to be unnecessary.
The final paragraph of George's affidavit was a stunner, too. It suggested Feld had set up a special unit, much like the Watergate "plumbers," to destroy anyone who threatened the image of the circus as wholesome fun for the whole family, not to mention a conscientious custodian of animals and circus children. It was headed by one Richard Froemming, one of Feld's executive vice presidents, George swore. His main target was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and similar groups that had annoyed Feld with charges that the Ringling Bros.' elephants were badly cared for.
"As part of my work for Feld Entertainment," George wrote, "I was also asked to review reports from Richard Froemming and his organizations based on their surveillance of, and efforts to counter, the activities of various animal rights groups. I have discussed these reports in meetings in which Mr. Feld was present."
The former CIA spy master concluded by stating, "I swear under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct."
A Big Top exposé riles Ringling Bros.
Janice Pottker had a serious interest in the way society worked -- she had a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia -- when she started out as a writer. Her first two books, coauthored with her husband, Andrew Fishel, had been academic, "Sex Bias in the Schools," and "Sex Discrimination in Education." In Washington, where her husband wound up as a senior official at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), she began work as a sociologist in the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. She didn't leave her concerns behind in the office, either: Galled by a local dry cleaner's double standard of charging women $2.25 to clean blouses that were similar to the shirts that men paid only 95 cents to have cleaned, she joined with another woman to file complaints with the local county human rights commission. Their protest was written up in the Washington Post.
Soon, she began to pursue writing full time, showing a knack for unauthorized biographies. In 1987 she published "Dear Ann, Dear Abby," on the two sisters who became renowned advice columnists. The book sold 200,000 copies. Family dynasties intrigued her. She began profiling them for a book she would call "Born to Power," which eventually included a chapter on the Felds, adapted from her magazine story.
In that article, Pottker wove what was, for the most part, an inspiring tale of Irvin Feld's origins as a little boy in the 1920s selling nickel bottles of snake oil at two for a dollar at traveling carnivals in rural Maryland, through the mid-1980s, when his global entertainment company employed 2,500 people, including Siegfried and Roy, with revenues approaching $260 million a year. The feisty entrepreneur had cracked the Forbes 400.
Feld's knack for making serious money blossomed early, when he and his brother Israel came to Washington in 1938 and opened a novelty store in a predominately black part of the city. Two years later Irvin plunked down $500 to open the Super Cut-Rate Drugstore downtown, and hung speakers outside to blare pop tunes and gospel songs at passersby. "I knew blacks liked music and records," he was quoted as saying.
But that was only the beginning. The drug store was soon followed by record stores, and then his own recording company, which specialized in black acts. The budding impresario then originated the idea of outdoor summer concerts, and later indoor concerts with air conditioning, to promote his recording acts, showing up to take charge in his trademark crimson jackets and garish ties, and screaming orders with his ever-present cigar and diamond pinkie ring fluttering in the air. Soon, Feld was booking acts from Chubby Checker to the Big Bopper to a teenage Paul Anka in all kinds of major venues. Then, in 1956, he finally got his lifelong wish: buying a share of the near-bankrupt Ringling Bros. circus. In 1967, for $8 million, he got it all.
In 1984, after dramatic ups and downs including his forced sale of the circus to Mattel for two years, one of the greatest showmen on earth died in his sleep. The headline in the New York Times called him, "The Man Who Saved the Circus."
Overall, Jan Pottker crafted a moving story arc out of Irvin Feld's "chills and spills." But there were dark passages, too.
Irvin Feld, she reported, had made little effort to conceal his homosexual affairs. His wife Adele, evidently blaming herself for her husband's lack of affection, had committed suicide in 1958. "Adele blamed herself for Feld's inattention; if she were prettier or sexier, she reasoned, he'd be happy and their marital problems would be solved," Pottker wrote, keeping her sources for this information hidden from the reader. "After faking a marriage for a dozen years, she realized that there was only one way out."
The two Feld kids, Ken and Karen, had been shlepped off to live with an aunt while their father traveled the world. Meanwhile, their father continued an open relationship with a man until 1981 when, according to Pottker, "a bullet had lodged in the spine of his longtime companion and company assistant after a shooting outside a gay bar on P Street."
In went the clowns
After Irvin Feld died, Pottker described how Ken mysteriously turned on his sister, Karen, a vivacious syndicated Washington society columnist who had only turned to journalism after finding any meaningful role in the company blocked, first by her father, then her brother. In fact, Karen Feld told Pottker, Ken tried to evict her from the Georgetown house their father had provided her, but never given her title to. Ken seized her BMW, another gift from her father. Much of this was known to the small, business community of Washington, which operates in the shadow of the federal government and national media. But Pottker's riveting piece was nevertheless the talk, if not of the town, then at least Duke's, the now long gone Connecticut Avenue steak house where the capital's local money men hung out.
At the headquarters of the circus, however, Ken Feld was in a towering rage. Pottker's "revelation" that his father was gay "outraged him," Pottker would discover in a deposition given by Allen Bloom for Smith's suit against Feld. Bloom had been taken under Irvin Feld's wing as a child in 1947, and would eventually become marketing and publicity director for the circus. In the summer of 1990 he watched the younger Feld twist himself into a red-faced, neck-throbbing, full-throated primal scream against Pottker, "that cunt." Feld, said Bloom, could not get over the article. He read it over and over. He vowed total war.
And he knew just the man to do it: Clair George, the disgraced, suave, former CIA chief of covert operations, whom he had originally hired to work on "international" duties, including the acquisition of a Chinese panda for a circus act. Now Feld had a new mission for the career dirty trickster: Find out what Jan Pottker is up to.
Get dirt on her, he said. Ruin her professionally ... and why not personally, too? Perhaps they could recruit "a bodybuilder type" to seduce her and wreck her marriage, he told his sidekick, vice-president Charles Smith, according to depositions that would later be filed in court. Nothing's out of bounds. Spread rumors. Throw dirt. Report back to me personally on your progress right away, Feld was reported as saying. And for as long as it takes.
In went the clowns.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
The paper trail of crime and punishment in Washington usually begins in the basement of Superior Court for the District of Columbia, where the clerk's office is. When I request civil case number 99-008068, the clerk rolls out a cart piled with 15 bulging volumes, about 7,500 pages in all. I unload each 20 pound volume one by one. They are all labeled the same: Pottker v. Feld, et al. It will take six days to read through them just once, taking notes and making copies. After that I go back again and again, transfixed by the plot that unfolds in the files.
As a whole, the filings, motions, rulings, depositions, affidavits and exhibits evoke "The Spanish Prisoner," David Mamet's 1997 portrait of deception and paranoia. In stomach-turning detail, the documents describe how Ken Feld, Charles Smith, Claire George and a mysterious cabal of still-unknown dirty tricksters with close connections to the CIA were deployed to act as Jan Pottker's personal gremlins, without her ever having a clue about why so many things in her life were going wrong.
All this because Pottker, a pixie-haired, 50-ish wife and mother of two daughters, had written a magazine article that included a passage on Irvin Feld's well-known sexual proclivities and his reportedly negligible job as a father. It might have worked, too, and Pottker would have gone through life just feeling particularly unlucky, as many writers do. But then, the plot started to unravel.
From the pursuer to the pursued
After Pottker read George's affidavit, she faxed it to her friend Dan Moldea, a well-known investigative reporter and author of several books, starting with "The Hoffa Wars," a 1978 bestseller. Moldea's beat is cops, the Mob and corruption, but even he was shocked.
"Jesus Christ," he said when he called Jan back. It was one of the most amazing documents he'd ever seen.
"I was completely stunned," Moldea says. "Every investigative journalist I know has moments of paranoia -- where we believe that higher powers are actively but covertly attempting to sabotage our work. But after reviewing the George affidavit, I had never seen such overwhelming evidence that just flat-out proved it."
One of Moldea's first questions for Pottker was where the document came from. She told him about Charles Smith, who was suing Feld for millions of dollars in stock options and other money he claimed the company owed him. Smith had gotten the affidavit from Clair George to support his allegation that Feld had used company funds for his private vendettas against her and animal rights groups.
"She was befuddled and puzzled by the document," Moldea recalled. "She didn't know what to make of it." Moldea wasn't sure either. But he told her it was strong evidence of "a concerted effort to destroy her efforts" to write about the Felds, and recommended she talk to his lawyer, Roger Simmons. Simmons was a tough puncher who'd carried Moldea's unprecedented suit against the New York Times for a defamatory book review all the way to the Supreme Court, only to lose by a hair. This year he also won huge cash judgments against CNN for its dismissal of two producers for their story on alleged U.S. poison gas attacks in Vietnam.
On Nov. 10, 1999, almost exactly a year to the day that Pottker answered that fateful knock on her door, Roger Simmons filed suit against Ken Feld; Feld Entertainment; the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus and other subsidiaries; Charles Smith; Clair George; the owner of National Press Books, which Feld had funneled money through to publish Jan Pottker's Mars book; and one Robert Eringer, an obscure journalist with ties to the CIA who had allegedly helped George short-circuit Pottker's life. Other as-yet unidentified individuals suspected of wiretapping Pottker, breaking into her home and investigating her friends, were cited as "The John Doe Company." The charge was "invasion of privacy ... intentional infliction of emotional distress ... breach of fiduciary duty," and related allegations. Simmons asked for a $1 million judgment and $10 million more in punitive damages for his clients, Jan Pottker and her husband Andrew Fishel. The suit is ongoing.
Simmons quickly found a half dozen of Washington's blue-chip law firms hired by Feld, et al., arrayed against him. Most, like Williams & Connolly, counsel to the Washington Post, had longtime close ties to the capital's media elite. Simmons soon faced a snowstorm of motions for dismissals, postponements, challenges to jurisdiction, requests for protective orders on Feld company documents and other evidence, instructions to clients not to answer questions, and other tactics commonly used by big firms to frustrate, outspend, and bury a lone, middle-class plaintiff in paper and bills. Simmons plowed ahead.
A wiretapping goes very, very wrong:
The incident that led to the revelation of the circus's secret campaign against Pottker and animal rights groups was a bizarre dispute between Feld and his right-hand man, Charles Smith -- one that led to Feld firing Smith in 1997.
According to a 163-page deposition given by Joel Kaplan, a wisecracking, middle-aged private eye who had handled security for the Felds for 20 years (despite four felony convictions for illegal wiretapping along the way) Smith had Kaplan install bugs and hidden video cameras in the home and office of his -- Smith's -- own girlfriend, also on the Feld payroll, whom Smith suspected of sleeping with other men.
Kaplan also testified that he had bugged and videotaped Richard Froemming, who headed Feld's spying unit against PETA and other animal-rights groups, because Smith suspected Froemming of sleeping with her, too. Kaplan claimed he threaded the video and audio cables back to Smith's office, where tape recorders whirred silently "under his couch."
In Nixon-like fashion, Smith was "obsessed with taping," Kaplan testified. "You could walk into his office, he had five tape recorders laying on his desk. He had a punch bowl, party-size punch bowl with 150 tapes in it. You could see it right there. He had tapes all over his desk. He had boxes of empty tapes, boxes of unused tapes. He had videotapes. So he took a quantity of some of these tapes and put them in a bag."
One day in March 1997, Smith ordered a young gofer to gather up and destroy the tapes. At the same time, Smith asked him to go to his -- Smith's -- erstwhile girlfriend's house and bring back a Jeep he'd given her. But the gofer got his instructions mixed up and instead delivered the bag of tapes to Smith's girlfriend. ("He's a nice boy," Kaplan said of the young man in his deposition, "but rowing with one oar out of the water.")
Smith panicked when he heard what happened. But it was too late. The girlfriend had called the Fairfax cops, who launched an investigation. So did the FBI, three sources said. The tapes they found had recorded Smith's own voice telling Kaplan on the phone, "We have got to get, you know, the wires, man."
Hoisted on his own petard, Smith was arrested on suspicion of violating state and federal wiretapping laws.
The FBI investigated further, according to sources, but in the end the Assistant U.S. Attorney's office in Alexandria declined to prosecute. ("They just sat on it, and sat on it, and sat on it," one lawyer involved in the case said.) And although the police eventually dropped the charges against Smith and expunged his record, a Virginia jury last May awarded Smith's ex-girlfriend $500,000, to be paid equally by Smith and Feld Entertainment, for the wiretapping, according to a brief report in the Washington Post. The videotapes Kaplan described in his affidavit were not mentioned.
But Feld fired Smith. Then, Kaplan claimed Feld wouldn't pay him $274,000 he was owed. Smith, who would not return calls from Salon for this article, filed suit against Feld for over $6 million in stock options and back pay. Kaplan sued for the money he claimed he was owed. And while Feld would eventually settle with both of them -- Smith for $6 million, Kaplan for about $250,000, sources said -- the damage was done.
A PETA infiltration unveiled
How Smith induced Clair George to give him the affidavit that, like a loose thread, eventually unraveled all the plots against Pottker and the animal rights groups remains a mystery. In August 2000, when Roger Simmons, Pottker's lawyer, placed the affidavit in front of George during his deposition and asked him to reaffirm the truth of it, the following remarkable exchange took place.
"Well, I can't swear to that," said the aging spy master, now 70 and nearly blind from eye disease. "I accept the fact that I signed something I can't swear to (now)."
But you swore to it at the time, didn't you? Simmons asked.
"I sure did," George replied, "because the squeeze they put on me you'll never dream."
"Would you explain what you just said?" Simmons asked.
"No," George replied.
"Who is 'they'?" Simmons asked.
George, according to the transcript, gave "no oral response."
"Are you refusing to answer?" Simmons pressed.
"I'm refusing to answer," George said.
When George's 1998 affidavit surfaced it led to more suits against Feld. In June 2000, the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) filed suit in California. Eleven months later, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed their own suit in Norfolk, Va., where the organization is headquartered.
According to the PAWS suit, Feld's assault on PETA began in 1989, when his security man Richard Froemming allegedly dispatched a man and a woman (improbably named Martin and Lewis) to PAWS's headquarters in Galt, Calif., where they posed as former activists at PETA and joined the organization as volunteers. Over the next three years, according to the allegations, the two undercover agents stole "thousands of pages" of PAWS' internal documents, including donor lists, that they used to solicit funds for an antagonistic organization, "Putting People First." To hide its hand in the scheme, Feld Entertainment farmed out the job to Richlin Consultants, a private security firm.
In particular, Feld's spies targeted the group's leaders, executive director Patricia Derby (a veteran Hollywood animal trainer), and secretary Edward Allen Stewart, going so far as to photograph the interior of their homes and offices, the suit claimed. Douglas Martin also "attempted to solicit Stewart to commit an illegal act involving the theft of Ringling Bros. animals," the suit charged, while Julie Lewis ingratiated herself so successfully with PAWS's director Pat Derby that in May 2000 she accompanied her to Washington, where Derby was scheduled to testify before a congressional committee on pending legislation. At Derby's side, Lewis attended sensitive meetings and sent intelligence reports back to the circus, the suit charged.
Again, it was a blunder by Chuck Smith that exposed the operation. When Smith left Feld in 1997 (after his videotapes of his girlfriend fell into her hands), he hired a Northern Virginia firm, Aegis Security Associates, according to sources close to the case, to gather up incriminating documents on Feld. Those included the documents his spies had stolen from PAWS, including internal documents, surveillance reports from Martin and Lewis, unauthorized pictures of the office and homes of Derby and Stewart, and photocopies of such personal documents as Stewart's Social Security card and driver's license. But last May, according to the PAWS complaint, Aegis finally tired of waiting for Smith to pay them for this discreet service. Its proprietors, Carl Rowan Jr. and John Materras, called up PAWS to see how much the documents might be worth to them.
Pat Derby said she'd like to see some samples first, so Rowan and Matteras flew out to California. When Derby got a look at the purloined material, she not only didn't pay Rowan and Matteras, she promptly filed suit against Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey, Richard Froemming and Froemming's own private security firm, Richlin Consultants, which had managed the spying operation for Feld. A suit by PETA soon followed.
Feld quickly settled the PAWS suit out of court with an undisclosed cash payment. Richlin Consultants went out of business (although Froemming is still employed by the circus). Feld also turned over a number of Asian elephants to PAWS, along with funds to take care of them. PETA's suit, however, is ongoing.
Why would Feld go to such lengths to destroy his antagonists? Besides his fury at Pottker for reporting on his father's bisexuality, an obvious answer is that he was desperate to protect his company's image. Today Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey is one of the world's most well-known, family-friendly brand names, undoubtedly worth billions of dollars. But if the name of Ringling Bros. ever became synonymous with cruelty to animals or children, it could go the way of Big Tobacco.
That was, of course, precisely what could result if PETA dug up enough dirt on Ringling Bros. PETA, for one, was a formidable adversary. It had circulated reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, describing horrible conditions at the circus's Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Fla. On Feb. 9, 1999, USDA inspectors found two tightly chained baby elephants with lesions and scars on their legs, evidently caused by constant friction with their restraints. The manner in which they were chained limited the offspring to "some side to side swaying," according to the USDA report.
But that wasn't all. Asked about it, the elephant handlers told the inspectors that baby elephants were "routinely" chained to forcibly separate them "from their mothers," which they called "an industry standard." The handlers tried to block the inspectors from taking pictures and angrily asked them why they were making such "a big deal" about it.
PETA infiltrates testing labs and harasses fur advocates, but spokeswoman Lisa Lange said there was a big difference between them and their adversaries.
"First of all, we don't steal documents in our investigations," she told the Associated Press when PETA filed its suit to little notice last May. "More importantly, we investigate situations where we have reason to believe, either through whistle blowers or industry practices, that illegal and abusive treatment of animals exists."