Wikipedia founder embroiled in affair and financial allegations

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Wikimedia-logo.svg This article mentions the Wikimedia Foundation, one of its projects, or people related to it. Wikinews is a project of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The implosion of a relationship between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and journalist Rachel Marsden has resulted in controversy and international headlines. Associated Press and ABC News have also reported on questionable activity by Wales involving Wikimedia Foundation expenses. The Wikimedia Foundation is a donor-supported non-profit organization which runs Wikipedia.

Marsden had contacted Wales two years ago about concerns she had over the article about her on Wikipedia, and Wales determined the article was not compliant with Wikipedia's standards. The tech blog Valleywag revealed Wales had a personal relationship with Marsden, and posted supposed transcripts of their instant message conversations on its site, www.valleywag.com. Wales and Marsden met in February, and The Times reported that "An apparent transcript of their conversations before that meeting suggests that, although Mr Wales had withdrawn from the editing process, he was still influencing the editors." The Times quoted Wales from the chat logs as having stated to Marsden "The truth is of course a much worse conflict of interest than that; but that will do." — in reference to his conflict of interest regarding Marsden's article on Wikipedia.

Jimmy Wales in 2005.
Image: Andrew Lih.

Wales posted a public statement on Saturday on Wikipedia addressing the matter, and stated that his relationship with Marsden was over: "First, while I find it hard to imagine that anyone really cares about my sex life, the facts are: I am separated from my wife. I considered myself single at the time of my one meeting with Rachel Marsden on Feb. 9, 2008 ... I am no longer involved with Rachel Marsden. Gossipy stories suggesting that I have been in a relationship with her 'since last fall' are completely false ... I care deeply about the integrity of Wikipedia, and take very seriously my responsibilities as a member of the board and as a member of the Wikipedia community. I would never knowingly do anything to compromise that trust." With regard to the conflict of interest in Marsden's article, Wales had acknowledged to a team of Wikipedia editors in February 2008 that he and Marsden "became friends ... and that we would be meeting about that," and stated "I recused myself from any further official action with respect to her biography."

On Sunday, The Canadian Press reported that Marsden had posted photos of herself on Ebay, and was selling items that Wales had left at her New York City apartment. In her Ebay posting, Marsden stated: "Hi, my name is Rachel and my (now ex-) boyfriend, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, just broke up with me via an announcement on Wikipedia ... It was such a classy move that I was inspired to do something equally classy myself, so I'm selling a couple of items of clothing he left behind, here in my NYC apartment, on eBay. Jimbo was supposed to come visit me in a couple of weeks and pick up some of his stuff, but obviously that won't be happening now." Marsden told The Canadian Press "It didn't really help matters that Jimmy chose to announce the breakup to the entire world via Wikipedia (which apparently now is an online encyclopedia that doubles as a personal soapbox?) rather than to me directly (which he did much later, in an instant message discussion)."

Cquote1.svg I care deeply about the integrity of Wikipedia, and take very seriously my responsibilities as a member of the board and as a member of the Wikipedia community. I would never knowingly do anything to compromise that trust. Cquote2.svg

Jimmy Wales

Marsden placed a t-shirt and sweater which she said were left at her apartment by Wales up on Ebay, and started the bidding for each at ninety-nine cents, with the auctions set to end on March 12. By Monday, bidding on the t-shirt had reached US$300, and by Tuesday the highest bid had reached $12,200. In an email to The Globe and Mail, Marsden stated "My only focus right now, to be really honest, is on my career and finding a way to get back into print, TV, or radio here in NYC," she wrote. "All of this other personal stuff is just an unfortunate distraction."

Jay Walsh, the Wikimedia Foundation's head of communications, told the San Jose Mercury News that Wales' actions in relaying Marsden's concerns about her Wikipedia article to a team of trusted editors was within his "routine" role. When asked by the San Jose Mercury News if Wales' actions regarding the Marsden article could compromise his role with the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia, Walsh responded "No, absolutely not."

On Tuesday, ABC News carried a story by Wired News reporter Megan McCarthy regarding allegations of "excessive spending" by Wales, and Associated Press also reported on questions involving Wikimedia Foundation expenses. McCarthy reported that former Wikimedia executive Danny Wool, who had left the foundation last year, criticized Wales' use of Wikimedia Foundation expenses in a blog post. Wool stated that Wales had tried to expense $300 bottles of wine, a $1,300 dinner for four at a Florida steakhouse, and visits to Moscow massage parlors to the foundation, and that the foundation rescinded Wales' corporate credit card in 2006. Wool also stated that Wales paid the foundation $7,000, after being short $30,000 on receipts for expenses.

Wool told EPICENTER that "There were occasions where he used [the Wikimedia Foundation] for personal advancement under the guide [sic] of the mission. And, as someone who was in there for the mission part of it, I found that rather distressful." Wool commented in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle: "Originally, it was carelessness ... But as things developed, it became more apparent and obvious that he was taking advantage of the foundation credit card. It was almost like his personal piggy bank."

Florence Devouard in 2006.
Image: Gus Freedman/Wikimedia Foundation.
Cquote1.svg Jimmy has never used Wikimedia money to subsidize his personal expenditures. Indeed, he has consistently put the foundation's interests ahead of his own. Cquote2.svg

Sue Gardner

In an instant message exchange with Associated Press, Wales denied that the Wikimedia Foundation had taken away his corporate credit card, and asserted that he had made the decision to stop expensing business travel for the foundation. Wales highlighted a statement by the foundation's executive director Sue Gardner: "Jimmy has never used Wikimedia money to subsidize his personal expenditures. Indeed, he has consistently put the foundation's interests ahead of his own." In an email to Associated Press, Brad Patrick, a former attorney for the Wikimedia Foundation, stated "Danny seems interested in blogging his way straight to a lawsuit".

Florence Devouard, who chairs the Wikimedia Foundation, told Associated Press that Wales had been "slow in submitting receipts," and that the foundation had rejected Wales' expense at the Florida steakhouse. Devouard told fellow foundation board members in a private email that she had convinced Associated Press that "the money story was a no story," and told Wales "I find (it) tiring to see how you are constantly trying to rewrite the past. Get a grip!" Wales told Associated Press: "The board, the current executive director, the previous executive director, and independent auditors have reviewed our books and publicly agree that all of my expenses were appropriate and fully accounted for."

Media reports speculated on how the controversy would end up being represented in Wikipedia itself. On Wednesday, the St. Petersburg Times wrote: "Wales' Wikipedia page said only this about Marsden: 'Wales had a brief relationship with Canadian journalist Rachel Marsden.'" An article in The Australian surmised: "History will decide whether Mr Wales broke his own principles, but before that happens there may well be a Wikipedia page devoted to the controversy."


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Sources

Wikipedia Learn more about Rachel Marsden, Jimmy Wales and Wikimedia Foundation on Wikipedia.
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