[Update, 3:45 p.m.: The original story only included expenses the plaintiffs were ordered to pay for one defendant. For three named defendants, the plaintiffs were ordered to pay roughly $159,000 in sanctions and attorneys' fees].
A Harris County district judge has ordered the owners of an Angleton animal sanctuary to pay nearly $29,000 in sanctions for filing a frivolous, harassing lawsuit against critics of the sanctuary who called the operation a "scam" on Facebook.
Renee King-Sonnen and her husband, Tommy Sonnen, who run Rowdy Girl, described as a "vegan" farm animal sanctuary, were also ordered to pay nearly $29,000 in defendants' attorneys' fees. The couple had sued the critics in February for $1 million, accusing them of conspiring for nearly two years to disparage the sanctuary's reputation. (Tommy Sonnen is also a sanctuary board member.)
The critics — who included former volunteers and donors who questioned the nonprofit sanctuary's finances — raised questions on a Facebook page called The Real Rowdy Girl Revealed.
The defendants, who include Dallas child psychiatrist and former sanctuary donor Sujatha Ramakrishna, successfully sought to have the lawsuit dismissed with prejudice under the Texas anti-SLAPP statute, which is meant to safeguard against meritless defamation lawsuits.
In his lengthy reply, the critics' attorney, Adam Milasincic, wrote, "There is no doubt what this lawsuit is designed to achieve — stopping the public debate about Rowdy Girl, and silencing critics who raise questions about Rowdy Girl's less-than-stellar fundraising and animal-welfare records."
A presiding judge agreed, ordering the plaintiffs on July 26 to pay $28,750 in sanctions, noting, "The Court considered lesser sanctions, but determined that [the amount] is necessary to achieve the [anti-SLAPP's] deterrent purpose. The Court concludes that, absent the sanction awarded, there is a material risk that Plaintiffs will continue to bring similarly unsuitable claims in the future."
Rowdy Girl first made headlines nationwide through its unusual origin story: After Renee King-Sonnen remarried Tommy Sonnen, a retired Dow Chemical employee turned cattle rancher, she became vegan and wanted to save her husband's cattle from slaughter. Instead of simply allowing the cows to live out their days in the pasture, Sonnen said his wife could buy them. So King-Sonnen raised $30,000 online to purchase the animals, thus establishing the sanctuary in 2015. (The couple divorced in 1994 and remarried in 2010.)
But the online critics raised questions about how the nonprofit used its donations. Attached as an exhibit in the defendants' reply, Rowdy Girl's 2015 tax return shows the sanctuary spent more on "office expenses" ($3,131) than on veterinary care ($2,169). Nearly $8,700 went to "advertising and promotion," and nearly $3,000 went to making T-shirts. Another $2,091 went to "information technology."
King-Sonnen said she'd have to check her records for specifics on those expenses, saying, "It's 2015, give me a break."
But Milasincic's filing raises serious questions about the 2015 tax return, noting:
"Rowdy Girl's tax records confirm the substantial truth of statements that criticize its fundraising and spending practices. The gist of the comments is that Rowdy Girl tends to fundraise aggressively and then spend more of the donations on [the couple's] personal expenses than on helping animals."
Also questioned was the fact that, while King-Sonnen raised $34,000 to buy the cows, the tax return showed the sanctuary "shows that it holds only $27,000 worth of livestock, leaving a $7,000 discrepancy."
King-Sonnen told the Houston Press the lesser amount was due to depreciation. While federal tax guidelines allow depreciation of livestock under certain conditions, those rules are generally tied to the animals' use — i.e., dairy, breeding or drafting (work animals). The federal guidelines do not allow depreciation for livestock ranchers raise, and it's unclear if cows that are not used for any agricultural purpose can still be defined as livestock. (Many nonprofits use a "straight line method" for determining a fixed asset's depreciation, which amortizes the property's purchase price over its estimated lifetime; again, it's unclear if this applies to what is essentially an enormous, cud-chewing outdoor pet.)
Milasincic's reply also alleged that, of the four animals who have died since the sanctuary was founded, two died from "preventable pneumonia."
The couple denied the allegations to the Press Tuesday morning, with Sonnen calling the accusations "a legalized witch hunt."
King-Sonnen, who also sells a nutritional supplement for a multilevel marketing company called Zurvita, said she couldn't remember what the information technology expense involved, but she said the office expenses included a desk, filing cabinets and printers.
We also asked her about Milasincic's contention that:
"At around the same time King was asking donors to give her $30,000 to buy cows from her own husband, King was earning a six-figure salary in real estate, owned two houses, and claimed that selling nutritional supplements was lucrative enough to finance a home remodeling."
King-Sonnen told us, "That's not true at all. It's absolutely false. It has nothing to do with reality." She said she had quit real estate before she remarried Sonnen.
So where did Milasincic get such a crazy notion? From King-Sonnen herself, it turns out.
In an October 2016 article for Nutritionalstudies.org — filed in the court records — King-Sonnen wrote:
"When my husband and I remarried for the 2nd time, I was a top producing realtor in a prominent subdivision in Pearland, Texas. I was an expert buyer's agent in a 4,000-acre master planned community, and I thought I had 'arrived.' Earning a 6-figure income was easy — I had found my financial niche in the world."
She also wrote that she was living in a 3,500-square-foot home (along with her friend), and was "saving money to build my own home in Shadow Creek," a subdivision near the ranch.
King-Sonnen also claimed on her Zurvita "independent consultant" page that "I'm even making money, paying bills and remodeling my house."
The Press also asked King-Sonnen to explain the concept of buying the cattle from her husband.
"He was going to slaughter every last one of them," she said. "We were getting ready to get a divorce. We were on the brink...of a complete break-up. Our marriage had gotten to the point of no return. And I had fallen in love with these cows. I was keeping him from taking them to the sell-barn [where cattle are auctioned off]. I was stopping him. I threatened him. I said, 'If you take them one more time, I'm going to follow the trailer to the sell-barn, I'm going to buy them all back with your credit card.'...These cows started meaning something to me."
But King-Sonnen also claimed that her husband "has spent hundreds of thousands of his own money out of his 401(k) on the needs of the sanctuary." However, these contributions are not reflected in Rowdy Girl's tax returns, and King-Sonnen could not say exactly how much her husband allegedly spent, or what the money was used for.
When we asked Tommy Sonnen the same questions, he responded — as is the couple's custom — by delving into the sanctuary's origin story. When pressed for a direct answer, he declined to comment.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
But journalist, animal advocate and Rowdy Girl board member Jane Velez-Mitchell — one of the sanctuary's staunchest defenders — told the Press that Rowdy Girl's animals are well cared for.
"These are good, kind, hardworking people," Velez-Mitchell added. "I will vouch for their character, I will vouch for the health of the animals."
Velez-Mitchell said the online criticism took a toll on the couple.
"I was in real time with Renee and Tommy when they were dealing with people who were harassing them so much online with nasty, vile comments, that it was interfering with their ability to run their sanctuary, because their good name was being maligned," she said.