City Paper is not for tourists
On Nov. 24, activist Adam Ortberg, 29, sat across from two dark-suited lawyers representing banking giant Goldman Sachs. Just two days before, the two attorneys had carted towers of paper into the civil branch of D.C. Superior Court. In the most extensive filing some there had ever seen, the piles of paper presented Ortberg as a victimizer.
The grim lawyers wanted a temporary restraining order against him, his co-defendant Michael Weber, 24, and the organization they’re part of. Though Ortberg is a pretty big guy, neither he nor Weber exactly fit the bill of a dangerous stalker. Shaggy and soft-spoken, both give off the vibe of being the kind of process-loving progressives who, whenever they get a chance, suggest everyone “circle up.” But there they were, in the chambers of Judge Curtis E. von Kann, learning why one of the most powerful financial entities in the world, along with one of its lobbyists, Michael Paese, was now terrified of them.
A former top aide to Rep. Barney Frank, Paese was helping the Massachusetts Democrat crack down on Wall Street—via the House Financial Services Com mittee—for causing the country’s financial meltdown, before he defected to the other side in 2009. The abandonment pissed Frank off; Paese was barred from lobbying the committee for two years instead of the standard one-year “cooling-off period.” After taking his new, more lucrative position at Goldman, Paese ran into trouble from Ortberg, Weber, and their group. “They scare him,” lawyer William D. Nussbaum, flanked by lawyer Douglas Crosno, told the judge. “We know what th ey’ve done in other places. Exploding things, harming people…”
Goldman Sachs, of course, is at the center of a lot of controversies these days. It paid billions in bonuses last year, after racking up record profits, and the firm’s come under fire since the financial collapse wrecked the economy in 2008. But what raised Ortberg and Weber’s ire had nothing to do with collateralized mortgages or Wall Street titans. The group they belong to is called the Defenders of Animal Rights Today and Tomorrow. And they’re angry at Goldman, and at Paese, because of puppies.
On Halloween, at about 8 p.m., DARTT was hard at work outside of Paese’s home in the 1600 block of 19th Street NW. A dozen or so members showed up dressed in masks and lab coats. They chanted, and held up signs, and told everyone within earshot that Paese was psychotic. “Michael Pease, your neighbor, is a puppy-killing scumbag!” a protester yelled through a megaphone.
Which isn’t to say that DARTT actually thought Paese was inside torturing dogs. (“Mr. Paese has a dog, it’s a beautiful dog,” Nussbaum, would later tell von Kann. “He loves the dog. I’ve met the dog. And the dog would be appalled to know what’s being said about Mr. Paese.”) Goldman Sachs got mixed up in an animal rights protest through a complicated chain that starts with Huntingdon Life Sciences.
In the 1990s, the British company came under fire for videos of its employees abusing animals, beyond even the typical horror movie set-up that’s required to conduct animal research. HLS promised reforms. But the allegations persisted. When a list of the company’s stockholders was published in the UK, stock prices tanked. HLS eventually fled to the New York Stock Exchange. Still, stock prices remained dismally low, and HLS might have gone under except for a few strong-stomached investors and lenders.
According to DARTT, one of the lenders that helped HLS hold on is Fortress Investment Group, a ballsy New York investment firm that’s made and lost billions since it was founded in 1998. Ortberg says in an e-mail that his organization has discovered Fortress lends money to HLS “through a series of shell companies.” For instance, there’s a front company in Luxembourg called Anchor Sub Funding, he says. Fortress uses it to route money “presumably to stop HLS’ horrific record of cruelty, violence and law breaking from tarnishing Fortress’ reputation,” Ortberg writes.
DARTT says Goldman owns shares in Fortress, but Goldman denies it, and spokesman David Wells says there’s “no direct connection” between the bank and HLS. A search of a Securities and Exchange Commission database doesn’t turn up any sign that Goldman has an ownership stake in Fortress, either. Still, to DARTT, Paese is public enemy No. 1—at least for an animal rights group that operates locally. Neither Fortress nor HLS has any employees in D.C., so when DARTT wanted to protest HLS, it went after Goldman.
According to Paese’s lawyers, DARTT’s attempt to pressure Goldman has been a nightmare. DARTT has descended on Paese’s home five times to accuse him of animal abuse. “Those demonstrations—which defendants euphemistically call ‘home visits’—are extremely loud, disorderly and intimidating,” Paese’s lawyers wrote in court papers. There were threats: “We know where you sleep,” demonstrators chanted.
The protests wound up causing a scene on Paese’s block, just north of Dupont Circle. A neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity (he says Paese isn’t the most friendly person in the world, and he doesn’t want to make trouble), recalls seeing a Metropolitan Police Department patrol car parked outside after the Halloween incident. He says he approached the cops and asked what the deal was. They told him Goldman was footing the bill for round-the-clock MPD security. Another neighbor resorted to donning a pair of headphones typically used on firing ranges during the demonstrations, lawyers told the court. Yet another was forced to lock himself in his home with his two frightened beagles. (“No small irony there,” the lawyers quipped.)
If that wasn’t gnarly enough, the noise also disturbed a nearby cancer sufferer. DARTT protesters were told about the ill resident, but Paese’s lawyers say they didn’t care. When one neighbor confronted the activists about disturbing the healing quiet of the neighborhood, the complainer just got an ear full of megaphone, the lawyers say. From Ortberg’s perspective, though, at those demonstrations, Paese’s neighbors were causing the real ruckus: One Paese supporter bumped a demonstrator with his car, Ortberg recalls. Video taken by DARTT at the Halloween protest shows the rowdiness goes both ways. At one point, a tall, broad-shouldered resident was inches from the face of a protester, cupped his hands, and let loose with, “Shut the fuck up!” A while later, he got in the face of some female protesters and called them “cunts.”
Ultimately, the saga’s ending may not surprise anyone who’s watched Goldman Sachs play hardball to get its way over the past few years. Though DARTT lawyer Jeffrey Light argued that the lawsuit wa s “a free speech case,” von Kann sided with Paese.
In a temporary restraining order handed down the day of the hearing, the judge barred DARTT from coming any closer than 100 feet away from Paese’s house—or any other house where Goldman Sachs employees live. “Defendants have repeatedly subjected plaintiffs and their neighbors to extremely loud, unruly, threatening, harassing, obstructive, and in some instances frightening protests and demonstrations that have unreasonably and substantially interfered with plaintiff’s ability to use and enjoy their property,” von Kann wrote. Between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m., the buffer zone expands to 150 feet. Demonstrators also have to stay 50 feet away from any Goldman offices. At a hearing set for December 10, von Kann will begin hearing arguments on whether to keep the order in place. DARTT says they’ll fight it.
That won’t be the only fallout from the episode. Legislation by Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh would curtail DARTT’s home visits even more, by forbidding nighttime demonstrations in front of private homes, banning protesters from wearing masks while demonstrating in front of homes, and requiring protesters who plan to target houses to notify MPD two hours in advance. Cops could make a warrantless arrest if protesters seem to be violating any of those rules.
The bill already passed a first reading; a committee report on the legislation makes clear it was aimed at DARTT, mentioning “a small group of animal rights activists.” Ortberg says there’s an easier way to end all the protests: Negotiation, and, ultimately, divestment from companies involved in animal research. DARTT has tried to set up a meeting with Paese, but Ortberg says the lobbyist hasn’t responded to phone calls or letters. Until he does, there’s no chance of DARTT letting up, except if the authorities step in. “DARTT is committed to exposing those who participate in animal torture,” says Ortberg.