03/05/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

Domestic Drama Sends Owners of Vegan Magazine to Court

VegNews is an influential, award-winning vegan lifestyle magazine. It just won its 10th Maggie Award for Best Niche Lifestyle Magazine, and the New York Times refers to it as "a glossy magazine that is a mix of People and Real Simple for the meatless set." It was founded in July 2000 by Joe Connelly and Colleen Holland, a vegan couple aiming to launch veganism into the mainstream.

Unfortunately, there’s trouble in vegan paradise. 

According to documents filed in August of 2012 in San Francisco superior court by Joe, he’s claims to be the sole founder and owner VegNews, asserting that Colleen is just an employee. A cross-complaint filed by Colleen on Feb 7, 2013, alleges this isn’t true, and that she and Joe are now -- and have always been -- equal partners in the business. In fact, she says the first time she ever heard Joe’s claim to sole ownership was when she reviewed the complaint that he filed against her. Something stinks, and for once, it’s not home-brewed kombucha.

In documents and declarations obtained through the Superior Court of California, several close friends, consultants, and advisors who have been present since the inception of VegNews, say they believe Colleen is telling the truth.

Al Whaley remembers in his declaration, “Joe introduced me to Colleen Holland. He introduced her as the co-founder and partner of VegNews which is the organization that Colleen and Joe were representing at the convention.”

Davy Davidson states, “Not long after we became friends in 1999 Colleen told me she had met a wonderful guy in the east and that he was moving to San Francisco and they were going to start a business together. Later I met Joe Connelly after he arrived in San Francisco when Colleen and he did indeed start that business, which became VegNews.”

In 2004, Joe filled out forms for an organization known as PIPS, and lists both Colleen and himself as owners of VegNews. In a 2005 interview with Quark Technology Partnership, Joe states, “Prior to moving to magazine we were two-person operation. Aside from our network of writers all of the work was done by two founders.”

In a 2005 editorial in VegNews, Joe writes:

Finally, I’d be more than remiss if didn’t recognize Colleen Holland, my partner with VegNews since the planning stages long before the publication of issue 1. She deserves at least as much credit for VegNews’ success as I do.

In both Joe and Colleen’s documents, they estimate their romantic relationship began deteriorating in 2005-2006, but they were able to still successfully run the magazine together, as partners.

According to a declaration from longtime friend and advisor Rey Ortega, Colleen and Joe approached him in 2008 to mediate whether or not Colleen should be considered a co-founder of VegNews. Joe claimed she shouldn’t, and Colleen claimed she should. Ortega agreed with Colleen, stating she should be known as co-founder. He adds:

I was never asked to judge who owns VegNews because they both acknowledged they were co-owners of VegNews and the issue of foundership only pertained to recognition.

According to evidence submitted with Colleen’s declaration, Joe acknowledged her as a co-founder in marketing documents as recently as 2006. As recently as 2011, Joe and Colleen were listed as owners of VegNews in a proposal to Eric Brent, the owner of HappyCow, a website they were considering purchasing.

However, in 2012, according to Joe’s amended complaint and Colleen’s declaration, relations between the two decidedly took a turn for the worse. The couple sought mediation for their problems, but it was seemingly unsuccessful, and according to Colleen’s declaration, ended with Joe saying “I will spend the rest of my life making sure you do not get what you want,” and “I hope we both get cancer and die.”

According to Colleen’s declaration, in mid-2012, Joe began changing the signature lines on his email to “founder and publisher”. Since the litigation began, he has added the title of “owner”.

On December 21 2012, Colleen states that Joe cancelled her two VegNews credit cards, leaving her unable to charge “critical VegNews business expenses.” She also writes:

On the other hand, Joe has taken several personal trips including to Canada, Pittsburgh, Colorado, and New York (where his family and girlfriend lives), using VegNews resources, and he refuses to account to me for expenses he incurred which are being charged to VegNews.

According to Colleen’s declaration, Joe either removed her access and/or changed the passwords on VegNews’ on-line banking system, the back-end server, and their internal financial system. She also alleges he changed the locks to the location of the company’s business records. Further, she claims he removed her name from VegNews’ first bank account, which they opened together in 2000.

In August 2000, Joe and I opened VegNews’ first bank account at Santa Cruz Community Credit Union. The account was opened in both of our names. Joe and I have always had equal access to it and have used it for VegNews business. I verified the checking account balance on December 27 2012 which was $59,204. On January 31 2013, I was informed by a representative of Santa Cruz Community Credit Union that on January 25 2013, Joe had my name removed from our account. I also verified that he had emptied the funds of the account so that the balance in the checking account on January 31 was only $31.49.

Colleen’s declaration continues:

Joe has now had my name removed from our VegNews bank account and my access to all credit cards withdrawn. I’m unaware of what Joe has done with VegNews money but don’t believe that it was used to pay legitimate business expenses given my knowledge of what outstanding expenses we had when Joe drained the bank account. These funds are needed to pay VegNews’ operating expenses.

Although Colleen is the sole lease holder on the VegNews office, Joe’s lawyers sent a letter to the managing owner of the building on January 14, 2013, saying they needed to terminate the current lease with Colleen and issue a new one to Joe.

On January 22, 2013, Joe informed Colleen that he had instructed the office cleaning people to not clean her office until she starts separating her trash from her recyclables. The letter ends with “If and when you decide to become a team player, they will gladly resume cleaning your office.” 

Joe is asking for full ownership of VegNews, and $4.5 million dollars for breach of contract and fraud, while Colleen is asking for injunctive relief and for “an independent third party to take control of the accounts payable, receivables, payroll, draws, and all other financial and operational decisions that Joe and I cannot agree upon.”

To me, this is a cautionary tale -- we in the vegan community need to behave ethically to fellow humans.

VegNews has been crucial to my journey as a vegan. When I first became vegan in 2004, I remember reading each issue cover to cover, and savoring every word. I looked up to both Colleen Holland and Joe Connelly, the people I understood to be the founders and owners, and cheered their success. When, in 2010, I began working as a VegNews’ columnist, and the magazine’s Editor-at-Large, I was absolutely thrilled. I now consider both Joe and Colleen to be bosses, and friends.

To say hearing about this lawsuit was upsetting is an understatement, and I’m heartbroken to learn what’s transpired. Right now, I’m personally grieving for a relationship that was once so strong, and has turned toxic. I believe that the talented and dedicated VegNews staff can right the ship, and I can only hope they’re given that chance.