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SeaWorld Employee Engaged in Corporate Espionage to Disrupt Activism Against Theme Park

The animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has publicized evidence that a human resources employee at SeaWorld San Diego has posed for the past three years as an animal rights activist to disrupt PETA’s campaign against the theme park.

Paul T. McComb has been showing up at PETA protests against SeaWorld. He has attended organizational meetings. He has claimed to be “Thomas Jones.”

On Twitter, “Thomas Jones” has posted messages typical of an infiltrator. He has suggested protesters may have to “burn” SeaWorld “to the ground.”

“Thomas Jones” posted to Facebook on July 4, 2014, that activists needed to grab their “pitch forks and torches. Time to take down SeaWorld.” He urged surprises at the next protest in a March 2014 message. “Are we going up [to] the gates or something.”

When protesters were arrested for sitting down in front of a SeaWorld float in the 2014 Rose Parade, “Thomas Jones” was arrested with other protesters. However, he disappeared and his name is not on any arrest sheets. He was not apparently charged with committing any crimes like the other protesters, who were booked and released.

The human resources employee calling himself “Thomas Jones” used a post office box in San Diego that is registered to Ric Marcelino, who is the director of security at SeaWorld San Diego.

SeaWorld was asked for an explanation and told Bloomberg, “We are focused on the safety of our team members, guests, and animals, and beyond that we do not comment on our security operations, and, “This is a responsibility that we take very seriously, especially as animal rights groups have become increasingly extreme in their rhetoric and tactics.”

While SeaWorld would not comment on whether McComb worked for the theme park, it did not issue a denial and seemed to implicitly confirm McComb’s employment when it provided a “link to a PETA job posting for an undercover investigator.”

The company spokesperson said, “PETA itself actively recruits animal rights activists to gain employment at companies like SeaWorld, as this job posting demonstrates.”

However, PETA claims individuals do not usually use fake names when conducting investigations, and another difference is that undercover PETA investigators are not typically inciting corporations to engage in illegal actions. PETA’s undercover investigations are not the same as launching a COINTELPRO-style operation against people engaged in nonviolent acts of protest.

It is not the first time that PETA has been targeted by a corporation. Coca-Cola hired Stratfor, a “global intelligence” firm, to investigate activists. The firm’s vice president claimed he might be able to access a “classified investigation” by the FBI into “PETA operatives.”

Coca-Cola sought to uncover: the number of PETA supporters in Canada, how many were inclined to engage in activism, how often US-based PETA supporters travel to Canada for actions, what PETA’s methodology was for planning actions, how PETA Canada was linked to PETA in the US, whether an oversight body controlled PETA actions, and if anarchists or ALF [Animal Liberation Front] supporters were involved in any protests.

The 2013 documentary, Blackfish, on SeaWorld’s mistreatment of orca whales has had a devastating impact on SeaWorld’s image. Fewer celebrities and businesses are willing to have their names connected to SeaWorld.

Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild and author of Spying on Democracy, described how corporations fear boycotts or educational campaigns that might expose their practices and impact their earnings. Increasingly, corporations are relying on surveillance of individuals and infiltration of groups to undermine and suppress activism.

As Boghosian detailed, Bank of America and Chamber of Commerce, represented by law firm Hunton & Williams, planned to engage in dirty tricks against US Chamber Watch, Change to Win, and the Center for American Progress. Hunton & Williams plotted with HBGary to attack those connected to WikiLeaks. Chemical companies like Dow Chemical and Sasol turned to security companies like Beckett Brown International (BBI) to target Greenpeace activists. Biotech giant Monsanto hired subsidiaries of Blackwater to spy upon and infiltrate activist groups organizing against the corporation.

There are very few consequences for this kind of corporate-sponsored espionage activity targeted against activists, especially when it is under the guise of protecting the “security” or “safety” of employees. Corporations are able to get away with all sorts of surveillance and information gathering on citizens until they happen to commit an error and are exposed.

Image is from Facebook pages of “Thomas Jones” and Paul T. McComb.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."