By Gregory Kohs
This is the third in a four-part series of investigative reports by Gregory Kohs, documenting conflicts of interest among individuals and organizations who have financial ties with the Wikimedia Foundation.
The first report is The Thin Bright Line
The second report is Wikipedia donors feel entitled to more than a mug or a tote bag
And the fourth report is Wikipedia’s Friends With Benefits
In previous weeks, Wikipediocracy uncovered the fact that many of the larger financial donors to the Wikipedia project have been modifying the purportedly “neutral” encyclopedia to reflect favorably on their own stories. Our investigative research was picked up by a very active thread on Slashdot, then followed by a feature story in The Daily Dot.
Thus far our research has centered on Wikimedia Foundation donors that one might describe as “mid-level” in their contribution amounts – ranging from $5,000 to $70,000. Today, our analysis turns to one of the largest donors ever to the so-called charity that operates Wikipedia. We’re talking about the Ruth and Frank Stanton Fund, or Stanton Foundation, which is a charitable trust set up by the former head of CBS and his wife, to carry out his philanthropic wishes in perpetuity. In 2008, the Stanton Foundation wrote a check for $860,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation. This donation would be increased to $1.15 million, and then followed in 2011 with another $3.6 million gift to support Wikipedia. We believe that no other single entity has given more money to the Wikimedia Foundation than the Stanton Foundation.
Because the Stanton Foundation is a bit mysterious, some background may be helpful to the reader. In 1991, former head of CBS Frank Stanton set up with his wife Ruth a charitable fund they called “The Ruth and Frank Stanton Fund”. By 2004, it had grown to $10 million in value. However, a more vast fortune was being collected in various stocks, mutual funds, and bonds, some of which were kept in the “Frank Stanton 2002 Trust”. When Frank Stanton passed away in late 2006, the monies from the fund and the trust were slowly merged into a new non-profit charity called the “Stanton Foundation”. This foundation, managed by Holtz Rubenstein Reminick (now Baker Tilly), keeps a very low profile – no website, no significant public relations, and if you didn’t know their EIN #133598005, you might have some difficulty finding their Form 990 filings. As more of Stanton’s private fortune was layered into the renamed Stanton Foundation, assets rose from $25 million in 2006, to $117 million in 2009, to $226 million in 2011.
Strangely, Wikipedia has no article about the Stanton Foundation. Only Wikipedia’s biography of the late Frank Stanton briefly mentions the eponymous foundation. In December 2008, the fund’s first historic donation to the Wikimedia Foundation was noted in Stanton’s Wikipedia biography; but in less than two hours, this mention of the donation was removed by Tilman Bayer (Wikipedia user “HaeB”). Bayer would go on to be hired by the Wikimedia Foundation in July 2011, and he is now Senior Operations Analyst. Also in December 2008, Pete Forsyth would add section headings to Stanton’s biography, and Forsyth would likewise go on to be hired by the Wikimedia Foundation between 2009 and 2011, as designer of the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative. It’s as if caretaking the Wikipedia biography of Frank Stanton was a ticket to the payroll at the Wikimedia Foundation. As noted above, the Stanton Foundation’s investment account management is provided by Baker Tilly. There are at least two Wikipedia articles relevant to the US branches of Baker Tilly: Baker Tilly LLP and Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP – both of which have been edited recently by what appear to be single-purpose and/or conflict-of-interest accounts; User:Jdelaure (July 2008, who was repeatedly admonished for adding content “clearly aimed at promoting the company” and “blatant advertising which only promotes a company”), the corporate-named User:BakerCN (editing in February 2012), User:184.108.40.206 (September 2012, from an IP address located in the firm’s headquarters city), and User:Kirby25 (November 2013).
The Belfer Center bombshell
However, these possibly conflicted tie-ins with editors who would later be paid by the Wikimedia Foundation and editors apparently from the Stanton Foundation’s investment advisory firm are small potatoes compared to what was revealed on March 21st. Ten days ago, Scott Bibby – a very active producer of content on various Wikimedia Foundation projects, who goes by the nickname “Russavia” – released a bombshell report that exposes an unprecedented financial tit-for-tat between the trustee of the Stanton Foundation, her husband at Harvard University, and the Wikimedia Foundation. Bibby’s analysis, posted on the official Wikimedia community mailing list, was so thoroughly researched and so damning, that rather than taking the usual tactic of ignoring or belittling criticism, the Wikimedia Foundation’s own Deputy Director Erik Möller issued a detailed response that acknowledged the situation as “indeed problematic”.
To understand what happened, one really needs to go back to December 24, 2006, which was the day Frank Stanton died. His wife, Ruth Stephenson Stanton, had already passed away in 1992, and they had no children to be left in possession of his vast estate. Stanton was described in his New York Times obituary as “a closed-off, cold man” who in 1950 required all CBS employees to take an oath of loyalty to the United States, and the following year created a CBS security office staffed with former FBI agents who would keep tabs on the political persuasions of employees, blacklisting certain writers and directors. (None of these facts are found in Stanton’s Wikipedia biography.) After CBS, Stanton would serve as the Chairman of the American Red Cross from 1973 to 1979. He would also serve on the board of trustees of Harvard University.
Who was caring for Stanton at the very end of his life? Without any family survivors, Stanton trusted his comfort and his fortune to his friends Elisabeth and Graham Allison. The only two trustees of the Stanton Foundation are Liz Allison (who pays herself $225,000 annually for her 30 hours per week of work for the fund) and Andrew H. Weiss (of Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, who is paid $100,000 per year for his 20 weekly hours with the foundation). Graham Allison works at Harvard University, heading up the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. And this is where it gets interesting, from the Wikimedia Foundation perspective.
Liz Allison began to take a very active interest in how the Wikimedia Foundation was spending the millions of Stanton’s dollars that she gave to support Wikipedia. As Bibby’s research showed, Liz was instrumental in the creation of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Public Policy Initiative, and she attended several sessions of events. (Remember, Pete Forsyth who had edited Stanton’s Wikipedia biography would then be hired by the Wikimedia Foundation to run the Public Policy Initiative.) In April 2012, as if by magic, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that they were seeking “an experienced Wikipedia editor” for a full-time fellowship at the Belfer Center. While the Wikimedia Foundation mentioned that the position would be funded from a Stanton Foundation grant, they didn’t mention that the Belfer Center is run by the husband of the Stanton Foundation’s primary paid trustee.
The Wikimedia Foundation also didn’t mention that several highly-experienced Wikipedians like Liam Wyatt (the world’s first “Wikipedian in Residence”, with the British Museum) and Pete Forsyth had vociferously warned the Wikimedia Foundation that the Belfer Center fellowship was “a terribly designed project” with “structural and ethical issues“. What were the key problems with the Belfer Center job description?
No experience? No problem!
For starters, the job description asked for “an experienced Wikipedia editor”, but the Belfer Center rejected all of the experienced Wikipedia editors that the Wikimedia Foundation pointed its way. Instead, they went with someone named Timothy Sandole, apparently because he would toe the political line at the Belfer Center, and regardless of his lack of experience ever editing Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation would lodge Sandole’s $53,690 stipend in a “Fundraising” account bucket, because the “who’s paying whom” nature of this fellowship was so squirrelly.
Timothy Sandole first registered as a Wikipedia editor on July 10, 2012, which was the day applications for the Belfer Center fellowship closed. Sandole got busy on Wikipedia by first editing the article about his own grandfather. Later that month, Sandole started editing in areas that would appeal to the selection committee at the Belfer Center, by editing Wikipedia’s article about nuclear terrorism, citing materials written by the Belfer Center’s own Graham Allison. (Remember, he’s the husband of the $225,000-per-year trustee doling out the money for the Belfer Center fellowship.) As is often the case with the Wikimedia Foundation, insider connections and brown-nosing trump actual talent, and the Belfer Center selected Sandole to be their paid wiki fellow, rather than any of the “experienced Wikipedia editors” that the job description called for.
Sandole’s work on Wikipedia reflected the usual novice mistakes. For example, one might say that he plagiarized the sources he referenced. In one instance, the source said “Russia’s determination to be treated like a great power contributes to tension with the United States,” then Sandole made it his own by changing a few words, “More generally, Russia’s determination to be treated like a great power can contribute to tension with the United States.” Plagiarism? What plagiarism? Apparently, Mr. Sandole’s relationship with his boss, Graham Allison, was going along swimmingly, as Sandole jokingly planned to write a book one day, “Why Graham Allison Rocks”. And remember, the Wikimedia Foundation is considering a “full disclosure” rule for any editor who is being paid to modify Wikipedia content. It seems especially problematic that Sandole went out of his way to obscure who was paying him for his work on Wikipedia. Considering that Wikimedia Foundation employee Sarah Stierch lost her job with the Foundation when it was discovered that she had accepted a $300 editing job without disclosing it, the lesson here would seem to be that “undisclosed paid editing” is only endorsed by the Wikimedia Foundation if there’s at least an approved $50,000 price tag associated with it.
You get what you pay for
Thanks to the fact that Sandole produced periodic reports back to the Belfer Center about how Stanton’s money was going to good use, we are able to see just how productive Sandole was. And unfortunately, these reports do show just how productive Sandole was. For example, on April 22, 2013, Sandole said that he spent 3 hours researching “offensive realism” and the concept of “buck passing”. He then spent 6 hours authoring a draft in Microsoft Word that he would then post to Wikipedia. Wikipedia shows that the result of those 9 hours of work was about 150 words of content. That’s one word of content every 3.6 minutes; or, about $1.60 per word in this case – nice work, if you can get it.
When Tomasz Kozlowski brought Sandole to light in a scathing blog post, several weeks went by without any meaningful acknowledgment from the Wikimedia Foundation. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia community is left waiting for Möller’s promised report on this fiasco. One Wikimedia Foundation trustee, Jan-Bart de Vreede, tells everyone “I am a little concerned by the tone” expressed by various Wikipedians who were complaining about how this Belfer Center grant was handled, and de Vreede tells the Wikipedia community that the Foundation’s “entire legal department work for the Wikimedia Foundation … [not] directly for you”. But, he assures that the Wikimedia Foundation “will undoubtedly come back with some response in the coming period”. We’re waiting, Jan-Bart.
Better bang for the buck
As promised in our previous installment, we were going to reveal one Fortune 30 company that has a non-disclosed employee editor who has worked for over seven years to execute more edits to their Wikipedia article than the next 14 most-active editors combined. The company has donated over $5,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation as a “matching gift” for all of their employees who have made tax-deductible donations to support Wikipedia. What’s the company? Boeing. The editor? Fnlayson, who we suspect is Jeff Finlayson, who only describes himself on Wikipedia as “an engineer in my early 40s working in aerospace industry in Hunt./Madison, Ala”. Jeff Finlayson is a Structural Analyst at Boeing in Alabama. We’d like to congratulate Mr. Finlayson for doing a more efficient job improving Wikipedia than the Wikimedia Foundation’s own hired guns.