The Greatest Vendetta on Earth
Why would the head of Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey hire a former top CIA honcho to torment a hapless freelance writer for eight years?
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By Jeff Stein
Aug. 30, 2001 | WASHINGTON -- 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.
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."
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."
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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."
If Jan Pottker's reporting on the circus turned up enough dirt to lead Ken Feld to launch a vendetta against her, according to a sworn statement by Joel Kaplan, the private security man and wire-tapper for a Feld Entertainment subsidiary, there were worse things going on than Pottker or even PETA could have imagined.
Angry that Feld had failed to pay him, Kaplan first sent a threatening letter to Feld saying, in essence, according to three sources who read it, "I'm the last man you want to piss off." When that didn't work, he gave an astounding deposition, under oath, about his duties at the company, which later made its way into the Pottker case file.
"What I did [was] illegal. Immoral, unethical, a long list," Kaplan testified on April 22, 1998. "Very long list. Do you want some of those?"
"Yes," Feld's lawyer said. What followed was a long list of charges against the circus that would seem to stretch credulity, and which is not backed up by any specific evidence from Kaplan. But Kaplan swore to it all under penalty of perjury.
"We had ... sexual assaults; pedophiles on the show; we had, you know, thefts; we had people we basically threw out of the buildings; we had people that didn't even have clothes on their backs." Later, Kaplan added, "We had people, pedophiles, taking kids in, the performers, taking them into trailers. We had some vendors who raped a few and the concessionaires in the building, and it was on and on and on."
In Kaplan's telling, the circus sounds more like Sodom and Gomorrah than Barnum & Bailey. But Kaplan had only begun. "We knew that drugs were actually coming (in) from the show side, working men, the performers," he added after a break. "Mr. Feld was told that." But they were not allowed to test the performers, he said. He also claimed that the working men were selling drugs to the food and concession vendors.
Kaplan continued with stories of "despicable living conditions," and drug problems that led to tragedy. "We had two people die on the train, from overdoses."
Many employees were "undocumented aliens," Kaplan went on. "We had criminals, people with extensive warrants out for their arrest working as working men under assumed names." As director of security for the concessions arm of the circus, Kaplan said he was closely involved in that. "[W]e started doing criminal checks in the later years."
And when sick employees filed for workman's compensation, he bugged their rooms, put electronic tracking devices on their cars, surveilled, harassed and otherwise helped the company outlast hard-pressed claimants until they'd take any crumb that the company offered, he testified.
And that was just the treatment of people. "We had some real problems with the elephants," Kaplan testified. "I was told [by the circus veterinarian] ... that about half of the elephants in each of the shows had tuberculosis and that the tuberculosis was an easily transmitted disease to individuals, to human beings. The circus, the elephants, were transported all throughout Florida, which is illegal to do that in the State of Florida."
Later, he said, "I was asked by Chuck [Smith], through Kenneth [Feld], to find a physician who would test the people on the circus to see if they had tuberculosis but who would destroy the records and not turn them into the Centers for Disease Control."
Startling statements, every one of them. But Kaplan said his company's "immoral, illegal, unethical, and dangerous" acts extended all across the country -- and abroad.
Name one, a lawyer asked. "Such as going through Warsaw, Poland and being asked to take $230,000 of U.S. currency out of the country that we weren't allowed to take money out of," Kaplan answered, "and illegally removing funds out of the country, which I think anybody would consider very dangerous."
Who instructed you to do this, he was asked. "Mr. Feld, Chuck Smith," Kaplan said.
But Kaplan wasn't a lone ranger, he said. Richard Froemming was the real go-to guy at the circus for clandestine ops -- spying, break-ins, surveillance and more dirty tricks against the animal-rights crowd. (Froemming said he had "no comment" when reached by phone.)
"The major assignment when he came into the company was to try to destroy People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and create some illusionary diffusion [sic] ... every time we had a protest," Kaplan said of Froemming, amplifying the claims in Clair George's original affidavit about spying on animal rights groups. "So I was involved in all that," Kaplan testified. "I was in the middle of it. I was involved."
And not just in the United States, he testified. "I have knowledge of the fact that Richard Froemming and his group broke into an office in Toronto, Canada and stole paperwork relating to a council meeting that they were having to ban elephants from performing in circuses," Kaplan said.
"I thought that was pretty immoral," Kaplan said. "Should I go on?"
Send in the clowns
How Ringling Bros. minions tormented a freelance writer for eight years.
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By Jeff Stein
Aug. 31, 2001 | WASHINGTON -- In August, I left a message for Jan Pottker at her home in Potomac, Md. She called back the next day to politely say she'd think it over, but doubted she would want to talk.
"Burned once, you know, it's not my fault," she said. "Burned twice, it is my fault."
It's not difficult to understand why Pottker declined to be interviewed. For eight years, she had been subjected to a bizarre ordeal. A gregarious, prematurely graying man in his late 30s posing as a helpful book packager and promoter had led her on a wild goose chase. While reporting on her every movement, and even thoughts, he steered her toward other projects, feeding her disinformation and generally doing everything in his power to prevent her from publishing anything about Ringling Bros.
The life of a freelance writer can inspire paranoia even at the best of times. Story assignments inexplicably fall through, editors change their minds. But the surreal campaign of dirty tricks endlessly played on Jan Pottker by Ringling Bros. chief Ken Feld and his minions would be enough to persuade even the most stoic freelancer that their career path was being plotted by Franz Kafka.
The excruciating details of Pottker's travails are annotated in almost 10,000 pages of pretrial complaints, motions, affidavits and depositions filed in the bowels of Superior Court for the District of Columbia. The evidence gathered so far evokes other unfortunate milestones in the annals of corporate espionage, going back to General Motors' infamous campaign against the young activist Ralph Nader 40 years ago through the mysterious death of Karen Silkwood on an dark Oklahoma highway in 1974.
Pottker's personal tormentor was an obscure, innocuous-looking, 36-year-old freelance writer and sometime publisher with uncommonly close ties to high-ranking former officials of the CIA. His name was Robert Eringer.
"I met Robert Eringer in the late 1980s," Clair George said in a deposition on file in Superior Court. "He called me when I still worked for the government, introduced himself as a book agent/publisher and asked me if I would be willing to do a biography." (George presumably meant "autobiography.")
A woman who knew him then recalled, "He was very charming. Almost charismatic, I'd say." Her understanding was that Eringer "worked for the CIA, definitely," although she says she couldn't prove it.
At the time, Clair George's 35-year career with the CIA was coming to an end. The chief of covert operations was under investigation for lying to a congressional committee probing the White House's secret, arms-for-hostages, Iran-contra caper. Eventually he would be convicted of perjury, and although President Bush gave him a Christmas Eve pardon in 1992, George was left deeply in debt from attorneys' fees alone, according to a CIA officer who once worked for him.
George and Eringer met at the Georgetown Inn in 1988 and became fast friends, according to both men's depositions. It's not clear why the older man took to Eringer, about 25 years younger. Perhaps the patrician-looking ex-spymaster admired Eringer's friendly interview with legendary CIA dirty trickster Miles Copeland, published in a 1985 issue of Rolling Stone. "Nobody knows more about changing governments, by force or otherwise, than me," Copeland crowed. Copeland also said he admired Richard Helms, another legendary CIA man who'd held George's job 20 years earlier before leaping to the top rung, for famously declaring he'd wear a misdemeanor perjury conviction for lying to Congress "like a badge of honor."
Of all the strange figures that pop up in this murky tale, Robert Eringer may be the most mystifying. Eringer grew up in Beverly Hills, the son of a noted illustrator for Walt Disney who has now retired to Monaco. Despite attending four colleges without getting a degree, he became a fairly prolific author. In addition to a few magazine articles, mostly on espionage-related subjects, he published several nonfiction books, including "The Global Manipulators" (Pentacle, Bristol, England, 1980), an investigation of the so-called Bilderberg Group, a publicity-shy confederacy of top Western industrialists and officials; "Strike for Freedom: Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity" (Dodd, Mead, 1982); and "The Conspiracy Peddlers" (1981), which one reviewer called an investigation of "researchers beavering away on ... activities of the super-rich and the intelligence community." That, of course, fit Jan Pottker to a T.
Eringer also wrote a handful of spy novels, which were published by an obscure house called National Press Books and other even more obscure publishers in South Carolina linked to NPB. Eringer's fiction drew no attention except from a few equally obscure reviewers and publicists, at least one of whom was paid to spam the Internet with disingenuous praise for Eringer's books. ("I have been given permission to distribute an excerpt from a new book ...") But they did carry the endorsement of some big-name spymasters. His most recent novel, "Parallel Truths," which chronicled the adventures of "spy for hire" Jay Sandak, was praised by Eringer's pal Clair George. "No one writes a funnier novel about modern day spying than Robert Eringer," George raved. "It is clear that he understands espionage ..."
And Eringer's 1995 spy caper, "Zubrick's Rock," set in Monaco, had a blurb from former CIA director William Colby, who died the following year.
Eringer's ties to the CIA don't end there. Former CIA director Richard Helms just happened to be Eringer's backyard neighbor in Foxhall, arguably the poshest part of Washington, until Eringer moved to California last June.
If CIA honchos seemed to know who Eringer was, the same can't be said for the small, close-knit community of writers who specialize in espionage. The number of reputable writers working this subject can be counted on two hands, and they closely follow each other's work. But none of them knew anything about Eringer.
Eringer hardly leads the lifestyle of a little-known writer. He buys and sells homes just about every other year, according to his deposition. In 1998 Eringer and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased their home on Hawthorne Street Northwest in Washington for $1.55 million, according to city listings. By last June, when the house was sold for a profit of $325,000, Robert had transferred the deed to his wife. City records indicate he still owns title to an empty, 2,200-square-foot lot, assessed at $45,000, on 49th Street Northwest.
Salon was unable to contact Eringer using the phone number in California that he left with the court. A reverse-directory check on the number in Santa Barbara, moreover, doesn't match the address he gave to the court.
It isn't clear exactly when Eringer began working for Clair George. But clearly he was on Feld's payroll, with orders to obstruct Pottker's planned book about the circus, by 1990. At that time, Eringer was running a small publishing operation called Enigma Books, on Georgia Avenue in suburban Silver Spring, Md. He befriended David Cutler, a Washington literary agent who was representing Pottker, and offered to help him market her proposal for a book on the Feld family. Cutler supplied Eringer with a copy of the proposal, which Eringer gave to George.
"Did you know he worked for the circus?" Pottker's lawyer, Roger Simmons, asked Eringer under oath.
"Yes," Eringer said. About the same time, he also admitted, he was secretly helping George develop "an authorized" book on the circus, paid for by Feld Entertainment subsidiaries to the tune of $3,000 a week. At the same time, according to court files, Feld was sending checks to Post Office Box addresses at three separate Mailboxes, Etc. stores in northwest Washington and Bethesda. The checks were often made out to entities such as The Pitcairn Group, Admiralty Consultants, and Equator Associates -- names evidently inspired by "The Mutiny on the Bounty."
Pottker was totally in the dark about these activities, of course. Eventually she tired of Cutler's ineffectual efforts to market her proposal and found a new agent. That's when George and Eringer kicked off a new operation to derail her book, "Project Preempt."
On the night of April 26, 1993 -- nearly three years after Pottker's initial magazine story on the Feld family had caused such a commotion -- Robert Eringer attended a presentation on family dynasties that Pottker was giving at a local library. When she finished, Eringer introduced himself, said he liked her ideas, and wanted to help her get some books published.
Like any writer, Pottker was flattered. She'd gotten "several" nibbles from book publishers after her Regardie's piece, she told him. She also confided that she'd just sent a piece about child abuse at the circus to Mirabella (a now-defunct women's glossy). She'd love to work with Eringer if he could help, she told him. They agreed to meet again soon.
So began one of the strangest campaigns ever waged against a writer, freelance or otherwise. It would become a convoluted, drawn-out saga that seems at once tragic and ridiculous. Ridiculous, because it's unclear at times exactly what Feld was getting for his money. Although they tried, there is no direct evidence that Eringer or George succeeded in causing any book publishers or magazines to reject Pottker's proposals -- although they may very well have. By their own testimony, however, they admit that they ran an eight-year-long operation to divert her into different projects.
Eringer promptly reported on his easy seduction of Pottker to Clair George, especially the important detail on her piece for Mirabella, "which was finished but not edited," according to their undated "Memo No. 1" to Feld. "It is our intention to monitor Pottker closely."
But spying on her wasn't enough. They needed to distract her as well. "To this end, we need a hook," they wrote to Feld. They planned to commission a book on the Rockefellers, which, they wrote, "will side-track Pottker for many months to come -- probably a couple of years." Since book advances are customarily paid out in thirds, they explained, "if we agree to an advance of $35,000 we will need only $11,666 up front."
There was an additional benefit, Eringer reported. "It will give me the opportunity, as Pottger's [sic] 'editor,' to monitor her work closely and, incidental to the (book project), collect intelligence on her sources and methods pertaining to her interest in Ringling Bros."
As it turned out, the Rockefeller book would never happen, but a book on the Mars candy family would -- with many problems from the moment it was published. And for years to come, Pottker would face one perplexing hurdle after another, unaware that her career was being monitored, prodded and shaped by a group of spies.
In late 1991 Eringer was busily insinuating himself into Pottker's life, as friend, book partner, confidant. They met regularly at restaurants and talked constantly on the telephone. One day she told him she was distressed to learn that an editor at Mirabella, who had at first received her circus piece enthusiastically, now wanted a "new direction," which could take months. She wasn't sure why, but, as Eringer wrote, she had noticed that the magazine "is now owned by [Rupert] Murdoch," the right-wing media baron not reticent about using his publications for partisan ends. She'd also heard from her editor that an attorney from the Feld company had called Mirabella to disparage her as "a tabloid writer with no credibility." Eringer reported this, too.
George and Eringer's next two reports to Feld relayed intimate details of Pottker's dogged attempt to track down and interview hard-to-find former circus employees, per Mirabella's instructions. She'd given their names to Eringer. She then turned in a new draft, but months passed without word from the magazine. George reported to Feld that "other matters discussed" with Pottker "were purely operational, based on book projects with which we plan to divert Pottker's attention."
The next memo to Feld was nearly gleeful: Mirabella had rejected Pottker's article on the circus. She had "no quotes from Kenneth Feld" or "children working at Ringling Bros." But Pottker wouldn't give up. She planned to try to sell the article to Redbook or Hard Copy, George warned.
Months later, however, there was no word from Redbook. She confided to Eringer that her new literary agent at William Morris had tired of trying to help her place a magazine piece, in which there was little profit, and "won't be of much further help to her on this front."
"Pottker is thinking up other ways to publish her circus story and asked my advice and guidance," said the next, unsigned memo, presumably from Eringer. "I told her I would think about it."
But there was a tone of alarm to Memo No. 9: Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, "incited by Pottker, has decided to pursue the 'circus problem' and may include her findings in hearings on child labor ... later this year," George reported. In addition, "Larry King Live had phoned Pottker again about booking her ... with Metzenbaum."
But meanwhile, she couldn't catch a break with a magazine. Redbook had rejected her child labor piece, George reported, with the excuse that it wasn't "broad enough." [She's] going to try USA Today's "Money" section next, he said. "Pottker continues her contact with Howard Metzenbaum's office," he added. She had also confided that Christopher Dodd, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, was interested in the issue, as well as "Larry King Live," he said. But "Pottker's in a race against time," he concluded, because the circus season ended in November.
Next, George reported that USA Today had rejected her piece as "too investigative." "She feels the story slipping away," he wrote.
Pottker confided to Eringer that she was thinking of calling a friend who knew a producer at ABC News -- apparently forgetting, or underestimating the importance of, the fact that the network was owned by Disney, a partner of Ken Feld's in "Disney's Shows on Ice." A report went to Feld.
Meanwhile, the plan to redirect her energies was starting to work. "Pottker has refocused time and energy into projects I have given her," Eringer reported. "Her enthusiasm for exposing Ringling Bros has been redirected to exposing others." Meanwhile, Eringer offered her a shoulder to cry on. He listened sympathetically when she castigated herself for clinging to an exposé of the circus.
"Pottker and I have discussed other authors and how tragic it is when they become obsessed by their stories and cannot move on," he reported in Memo No. 11. "We agreed that there are more good stories in the world and that if one doesn't work, an author should let it go and tackle other stories."
In fact, although Pottker hadn't quite thrown in the towel on Feld yet, Eringer managed to interest her in another project -- an investigative book on the Mars candy family. He reported that she had written a letter to People magazine about doing a piece on the plight of circus children, but after two weeks, there had been no word back from the magazine. "It is our judgment that People magazine will not show any interest," George reported confidently to Feld.
Now they had to make sure that someone showed interest in the Mars book.
In 1994 Pottker began research on a book about the Mars family. Eringer, her dutiful "book packager," helped arrange for it to be published by Joel Joseph, the proprietor of National Press Books, a little-known entity in Bethesda. He told the circus that he would need $25,000 for Pottker's advance, according to his deposition.
Pottker had no idea, of course, that her book was secretly being funded by the circus. But the operation was right out of a CIA playbook. As George admitted in his deposition, the checks "came from ... a Ringling Bros. bank in Texas or Oklahoma or ... North Carolina or someplace," addressed to various mailboxes he and Eringer had rented. In espionage parlance, these are called an "accommodation address," as Eringer put it in his own deposition; they're used to obscure connections between spymasters and their agents. After depositing the money in accounts at the Chevy Chase Bank and Madison National Bank, they issued their own checks to National Press Books, which in turn made out its own checks to Pottker, according to the testimony of Eringer and George and evidence on file in the court.
Joel Joseph wasn't entirely witting about the operation, the agents assured Ken Feld in a memo. "The Washington publisher will never know the source of monies put up for Pottker's advance." He did, of course, know that he wasn't paying the advance -- Robert Eringer was.
Joseph denies knowing what George and Eringer were up to. "There may have been a conspiracy by the other defendants," Joseph wrote to the judge, "but ... National Press Books and Joel D. Joseph was not part of the conspiracy."
Feld's agents, meanwhile, had grudgingly come to admire Pottker's reporting, especially her "eye for detail," one memo reported. She had discovered, for example, that Mars had been lobbying the government to extend Daylight Savings Time one week, past Halloween, because it could mean an extra million dollars in candy sales. The two spooks also enjoyed her anecdote about how Mars once secretly funded a "research institute" in Princeton, N.J., that ginned up a study saying "chocolate is good for teeth." She was also working on an idea for a book about celebrity homes in Washington, they reported. Fine, Eringer told her: Let's do it together.
"When talk turned to the circus," they reported to Feld, "Pottker had very little to say. Why? She has no time to even think about Ringling Bros. Our projects have effectively diverted her from new investigations into Ringling Bros and from marketing her unpublished story on circus children."
Eventually, the Mars book was published. It got good reviews and a fair amount of attention, especially in Washington. But it was hard to find -- and it became much harder to find when National Press Books refused to honor a mere $300 invoice from a photographer who had supplied pictures for the book. Pottker begged them to pay it, and finally paid it herself, but it was too late: The photographer had gotten a court order to pull the books off the shelves. The publisher didn't fight it. The book was effectively killed.
A similar chain of events happened with Pottker's book "Celebrity Washington: Who They are, Where They Live and Why They're Famous." Eringer and Pottker launched the project as a "joint venture," according to court files. But as time went on, Pottker found Eringer's work unsatisfactory. She decided to drop him and publish the book on her own. "Eringer's apparent incompetence was in fact deliberate," her suit charges.
George and Eringer seemed ready to declare victory by the mid-1990s, having entangled Pottker in other ventures. But their next memo reported ominously that Pottker had "joined an organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors." The national organization of crusading journalists was founded in 1975 and gained recognition after the 1976 car-bombing murder of reporter Don Bolles by Arizona mobsters, but Feld's spies didn't know anything about it. "We will try to find out what that organization may be," they wrote. "Will keep you advised."
Then, there was more bad news, the spies reported: Pottker had a new idea for an article or book comparing Ringling Bros. to the Clyde Beatty circus, which she thought was a better-run outfit. More distressing: She had also been in contact with animal rights groups.
On Sept. 4, 1996, Feld's men reported that Pottker had been musing about doing a book on Estee Lauder, but she still hadn't dropped the circus idea. Her new twist was to compare the Felds' stewardship of Ringling Bros. with that of their predecessor, J.R. North. And now, they reported, she planned to ask for help from Ken's sister Karen Feld, as well as Alan Bloom, who began working for the circus at age 11 in 1947.
Clair George's latest news no doubt sent Ken Feld right out of his chair. Now Feld's operatives began scrambling for more information on what Karen Feld was up to. George hand-wrote a memo to Eringer headed "TOP SECRET," and beneath that, "Project Preempt."
"Karen is not cooperating at this point," he reported.
After surviving the triple traumas of her mother's suicide, her father's eccentric behavior, and her own brother's effort to evict her, Karen had finally achieved a foothold on emotional stability. She still had the Georgetown house. She had her syndicated column, "Capital Connections," and a Web site, which not only made her a regular in the city's media-and-politics social whirl, but got her picture taken with Barbara Bush, and then with the Clintons. But close friends knew that she had long mulled the idea of her own book on the family enterprise.
It's not readily clear how George and Eringer found out what was on her mind, although Karen knew that her brother was employing the ex-CIA man. "She said Ken had hired him to spy on her," claims a friend in whom she confided.
However they found out, Clair George reported to Feld that "Karen vehemently insists" she hasn't helped Pottker, according to another of his memos in the court file. "I'm a writer," he quoted her as saying. "Why should I tell my stories to another writer? When I'm ready, I'll write them myself."
"Karen claims her book on the Feld family would be explosive," the memo continued. It said she'd had problems defining the book. It went on to further describe her vacation house in Maine, which she calls "a writer's hideaway -- a place to write her book one day." Karen also claimed to have many sources inside the Feld organization, according to the report.
"Whenever someone is fired," George reported her saying, "they call me." (So far, Karen Feld has yet to publish anything on her family.)
It was one of their last reports. In March 1997, Feld fired Chuck Smith, his vice president and go-to guy for dirty tricks and espionage, after the secret videotapes he'd made of his girlfriend fell into her hands and he was arrested by the police. With Smith's abrupt exit Clair George, Robert Eringer and the soon-to-be repentant wiretapper Joel Kaplan were also cut loose. The spying operation was about to crash and burn.
"I told Chuck ..." said Alan Bloom, who worked a half century for the circus before Feld let him go, after one suit had led to another like a row of dominoes, "tinkering with the press was a bad -- a bad thing to do, that it shouldn't be done." "Chuck loved to deal in ... espionage," Bloom added in his deposition. "I think he had delusions about his involvement with -- whether it be the FBI or CIA or whatever." (Smith in fact once worked for the FBI, but not as an agent.) "I mean, he told me so many stories that I just threw them off after a while. Very paranoid man."
It would seem that Smith and Feld believed that they could control the media through friends in high places. Certainly the inexplicable press silence that followed Pottker's lawsuit seemed to give credence to their faith. After two years, despite court files swelling with riveting tales of corporate spying and dirty tricks; despite the curious involvement of a brand-name CIA agent with a member of the Forbes 400, who happens to own the world's largest, best known live-entertainment company; despite two suits filed by major animal rights groups; and despite the elaborate, nearly decade-long harassment of a writer swirling under the nose of the national media in Washington, not a word of her suit appeared in print or on the air.
It wasn't for lack of trying, however. Bob Keating, the ABC producer who was a friend of a friend of Jan Pottker, started to pursue the story last year, according to knowledgeable sources. He worked on it for months, then presented it to his bosses. After they refused to go with it, Keating, who would not return repeated calls for comment, left the network. ABC, of course, is owned by Feld's partner Disney.
A spokesman for ABC News, insisting on anonymity, said, "There is no connection between his leaving and any story." He added that Keating "worked a full year on the story ... about the circus, I guess, but it's my understanding that it wasn't much of a story."
"Some stories stick, and some stories don't," he said, adding, "ABC has a strong record of doing stories critical of Disney."
Eringer did not respond to several messages left at his telephone in California. According to Clair George, they were still in business a year ago. One can only wonder what new projects they've cooked up.
Pottker's book remains unwritten. Her hopes for exposing the real life of the circus now lie with the courts.
It has been nearly two years since she filed her suit, in which she and her husband allege that they suffered grievous psychological damage from eight years of spying and harassment at the hands of Ken Feld and his operatives. (Contesting that, Feld's lawyers are examining the Pottkers' private medical records, which the Pottkers turned over to them.) The case is still in the discovery stage.
The circus isn't talking outside of court. Catherine Ort-Mabry, spokeswoman for Feld Enterprises, stated, "It's an ongoing legal matter and we're not going to comment." But Judge Leonard Braman has rejected several motions by Feld et al. to dismiss the case. And by the looks of Pottker's "proposed list of fact witnesses," the last chapter of her saga hasn't even opened, much less been written. Among the 346 names on the her list are several more former CIA agents, as well as the top editors at magazines and publishing houses where Pottker's proposals were derailed.
The 15 volumes in the basement of Superior Court are also littered with photocopies of checks that George and Eringer issued and received, not only in connection with Pottker, but in what looks like a wide spectrum of activities. All the while, they were dining out on other people's money at the Chevy Chase Club and other exclusive haunts.
Several hundreds of thousands of dollars passed through their accounts in the 1990s alone, the records show, many bearing the names of several intriguing but as-yet unidentified individuals and entities.The full story of the greatest vendetta on earth, it would appear, remains to be told.