Jimmy Wales, the Internet whiz famous for creating the online, user-edited encyclopedia Wikipedia, is facing allegations on two fronts that he abused the trust of the community he helped build.
Former Wikipedia employee Danny Wool is alleging that Wales misused money from the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the site.
At the same time, Wales has been hit with concerns that he inappropriately tinkered with a Wikipedia entry on behalf of a girlfriend, a television news commentator, whom he abruptly dumped last week.
Wales and the foundation both insist there has been no wrongdoing regarding his spending. But that hasn’t stopped allegations from spreading on the Internet.
Wool insinuated on his blog, All’s Wool that Ends Wool, 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.
“Originally, it was carelessness,” Wool said of Wales’ financial record-keeping in a phone interview Tuesday. “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.”
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!”
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.”
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.”
The financial allegations surfaced after Wales’ breakup with conservative commentator Rachel Marsden, a former contributor to Fox News. Marsden said Wales dumped her through a blog posting.
Marsden responded by leaking steamy instant message conversations, apparently between her and Wales, to tech gossip site Valleywag. She also began auctioning off on eBay clothing that she said Wales had left at her New York apartment.
The Marsden affair proved more than just titillating for readers and embarrassing for Wales, who said he has been separated from his wife and is seeking a divorce. It raised concerns from Wikipedia community members, who feared that Wales had edited Marsden’s Wikipedia entry, despite having a conflict of interest.
Wales said he was in touch with Marsden by e-mail two years ago when she approached him with concerns about her entry. He said he edited the entry when he found it was not up to Wikipedia’s standards. Before finally meeting Marsden in early February this year and subsequently dating her, Marsden said he alerted a team of editors at Wikipedia and recused himself from future edits on her profile.
“I acted completely consistently with Wikipedia policy,” Wales said Tuesday. “I did the right thing: I passed along my work to date for other editors to deal with, and I recused myself from the case.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. San Francisco Chronicle