Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has been pounded in recent days as a spurned girlfriend leaked the pair’s steamy IM chats, Wales has been accused of editing her Wikipedia entry inappropriately, and a former Wikipedia employee has accused Wales of trying to embezzle from the non-profit foundation that runs the site. The latter is actually a serious allegation, so it’s worth considering in detail.
Is there any real evidence that Jimmy Wales tried to embezzle money from the Wikipedia foundation?
So far, absolutely not.
Forget about the IM chats–they’re irrelevant. Forget, too, the “inappropriate editing” charge that has inflamed Wikipedia purists. Let’s focus on the embezzlement charge.
(On the editing, it’s hard to see how correcting errors in an entry is inappropriate, even if the post is about someone who later becomes one’s girlfriend. This is especially true if, as Wales says, he recused himself from editing the post before the two had even met. Wikipedia is still the wild west, which is why Valley luminary Dave Winer recently argued that it’s sleazier than Valleywag. Unlike the promotional abuse that infects Wikipedia daily, Wales’s behaviour doesn’t even the appearance of impropriety, at least as the SF Chronicle tells it.)
The embezzlement accusation is serious. But so far, anyway, it’s all sizzle and no steak. Here’s how the Chronicle tells the story, with our annotations (former Wikipedia employee Danny Wool’s original post is here):
Former Wikipedia employee Danny Wool is alleging that Wales misused money from the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the site…. Wales and the foundation both insist there has been no wrongdoing regarding his spending….
Wool insinuated on his blog that Wales was careless with expenses and receipts, often asking the San Francisco foundation to pay for personal expenses. He said the expenditures piled up as Wales’ celebrity grew, prompting the foundation to take away his credit card. According to Wool, the foundation, which relies on donations from users, performed an audit in 2006, allegedly resulting in a settlement with Wales…
For example, Wool said, Wales asked the foundation to reimburse him for a $1,300 dinner for four at a Florida steakhouse.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Florence Devouard, who chairs the Wikimedia Foundation, defended Wales and said he had simply been “slow in submitting receipts.” She pointed out that the foundation rejected the steakhouse expense.
A short time later, in an e-mail exchange with her fellow board members, Devouard reported that she had convinced the Associated Press that “the money story was a no story.” Yet she proceeded to indicate the opposite, upbraiding Wales for having asked the foundation to pay the steakhouse tab. “I find (it) tiring to see how you are constantly trying to rewrite the past,” she wrote to Wales in the message, which was obtained by the AP. “Get a grip!”
So what do we have so far? An allegation that Jimmy Wales tried to expense a dinner and other expenses and that the Foundation rejected them. First observation: It sounds as though the Foundation’s governance is working exactly as it was supposed to.
As for trying to expense the dinner, et al, we need more details before we come to a conclusion: What was Wales’ justification in expensing these costs? It’s possible Wales was playing fast and loose with expenses, but before we conclude this, it would be good to hear his explanation.
And the email from Devouard to Wales? Like previous Wales-revisionist-history stories, It doesn’t reflect well on Wales, as nor do the other details Danny floats in his blog post. But these details alone certainly don’t constitute attempted embezzlement. Devouard’s email was also emotional: Wales embarrassed Devouard, she was pissed, she vented. It’s dangerous to draw broader conclusions from that.
So that leaves the Foundation’s reaction to these attempted-embezzlement allegations and then the alleged “settlment” deal. The Chronicle continues…
Wales, who describes himself as chair emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation, said in an e-mail interview Tuesday that he categorically denied any financial abuse for personal gain. Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner backed up Wales, saying the allegations are unfounded.
“Jimmy has never been reimbursed by the foundation for personal expenses, nor has he ever asked to be,” Gardner said in a statement. “The expenses he incurs on behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation are modest and in no way unseemly. Jimmy has consistently put the Foundation’s interests ahead of his own, and has erred on the side of personally paying for his own Wikimedia-related expenditures, rather than the reverse.”
It’s hard to imagine a stronger statement exonerating Wales. The fact that the Foundation immediately came out this strongly reflects very well on him.
So that leaves the “settlement” allegation. Again, the Chronicle continues…
Former foundation interim Executive Director Brad Patrick, who Wool alleges struck a deal with Wales, denied any wrongdoing by Wales or the foundation. He said Wales accounted for every expense and that for items he did not have receipts for, he paid out of his own pocket.
“At the conclusion of the auditing process, I was absolutely satisfied we had taken account of everything,” Patrick said. “The specific allegation that we cut a deal is a complete mischaracterization and a red herring.”
This isn’t a complete denial–the “complete mischaracterization” suggests that Wales and the Foundation did arrive at some sort of deal–but again, the Foundation is coming out immediately, all guns blazing, and defending Wales.
Conclusion? The steamy chats are embarrassing, but whatever. The “inappropriate editing” charge sounds like fiction. The embezzlement allegation isn’t supported by any facts, and the Foundation–the allegedly wronged party here–is standing strongly behind Wales.
So unless Danny Wool is prepared to argue his point in court, he would be well-advised to stop lobbing public allegations at his former boss. If he doesn’t, he will likely soon be facing some allegations of his own (“slander” jumps to mind).