Virtually anyone can edit an entry on Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia. But its founder is finding it's not so easy to cover his tracks after a messy breakup with a TV personality and a dustup over his expenses began playing out on the Web.
It's not the first time that Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's de facto leader, has found his behavior questioned — especially since no subject appears too arcane for dissection by Wikipedia's passionate community of users. The latest episodes, however, reverberated beyond the usual diehards.
First, a former lover — political pundit Rachel Marsden — published steamy and embarrassing online chats with Wales, and dumped his clothes on eBay. Wales, 41, also became the subject of an eyebrow-raising blog entry by Danny Wool, who until last year worked for the nonprofit, donor-supported Wikimedia Foundation that runs the encyclopedia.
Wool wrote that Wales had asked the foundation to reimburse him for costly items like a $1,300 dinner for four at a Florida steakhouse. Wool alleged that at one point Wales was short on receipts for $30,000 in expenses before settling the matter with the foundation's lawyer and paying the organization $7,000.
Wool added that Wales' foundation credit card was taken away in 2006.
Wales denied that, saying in an interview over instant message that it was his own decision to stop seeking reimbursements even for business travel for the foundation, where he is "chairman emeritus" and one of seven board members.
Wales, a former options trader who started Wikipedia in 2001, would not comment on other specifics of Wool's charges.
He pointed to a supportive statement from Sue Gardner, who recently joined Wikimedia as executive director: "Jimmy has never used Wikimedia money to subsidize his personal expenditures. Indeed, he has consistently put the foundation's interests ahead of his own."
Brad Patrick, the lawyer cited by Wool, said Wool had been "irresponsibly erroneous." "Danny seems interested in blogging his way straight to a lawsuit," Patrick, who is no longer with Wikimedia, wrote in an e-mail.
Behind the public face, however, Wales was taking heat.
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 persuaded the AP that "the money story was a no story." Yet she then 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!"
Asked for comment about that exchange, Wales would say only: "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."
The foundation's operations were also questioned recently when it emerged that a convicted felon on parole had become the group's chief operating officer. Wales said at the time he was chagrined by the revelation.
But that feeling likely paled in comparison to last weekend's ugly public breakup between Marsden and Wales, who is currently going through a divorce. Besides selling some of his clothes on eBay, she published transcripts of messages in which Wales explained how he would lean on a Wikipedia committee to fix her Wikipedia entry to her liking.
In Wikipedia's devoted community of editors, this kind of conflict of interest is a huge no-no. It's also happened before: Wales has been caught tinkering with his own Wikipedia entry to, among other things, excise generally accepted claims that Larry Sanger co-founded Wikipedia.
But ultimately the Marsden affair likely will be notable for provoking Wool to speak up. Wool said he had previously kept the expense charges quiet so as not to hurt the foundation. With the Marsden episode leading to a fervent online discussion of Wales' character, Wool changed his mind.