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A relationship between Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales and Canadian political columnist Rachel Marsden became public this week. The revelation of this relationship raised allegations of impropriety on Marsden's article, which has been the subject of OTRS requests, and an arbitration case decided in November 2006.
The relationship was first rumored on Friday by Valleywag, a self-described "tech gossip rag" that focuses on Silicon Valley news. Valleywag reported that Wales had been separated from his wife since August, and had dated Marsden since "last fall". The story spread quickly, and soon reached the mainstream media, fueled by his admission of a brief relationship, and the publication of a series of chats released by Marsden, purported to have occurred between the two. One set of extracts discuss in graphic terms their personal relationship, while another purports to show Wales using his influence to have her article changed on her behalf.
Among the allegations made by Valleywag was that, according to an anonymous tip, Wales had "sent a mass email to a 'special' Wikipedia list of admins at the beginning of February, right before he was set to spend the weekend with Marsden in DC. Said he wanted her page cleaned up." This allegation, backed by purported extracts from chats intended to prove the matter, was seen by many as the most severe, as it implied that Wales ordered changes to her Wikipedia biography with an ulterior motive.
Wales said that he had been in consultation with the OTRS team, a group of Wikipedians that handle e-mails from the public, including concerns from article subjects regarding potential violations of Wikipedia's Biographies of living persons policy. He said that before meeting with Marsden for the first time, "I disclosed my plans to OTRS and further disclosed that it was a personal matter. I recused myself from any further official action with respect to her biography."
The Wikipedia Signpost contacted three separate sources on the otrs-en-l mailing list. Each user confirmed that Wales sent an e-mail to the list in early February 2008; the e-mail discussed what he saw as concerns with Marsden's article, and Wales' recusal from handling the matter due to a growing friendship:
Other than a possible followup to this email with any clarifications that Rachel might have (I will show it to her later) I am going to recuse myself for at least a while from dealing with this case. As I have mentioned before, Rachel contacted me during the most recent round of major revisions to her article via Facebook. We struck up a friendly conversation about her new website ... In the past week or so we have struck up something of a personal friendship, and I offered to meet with her and give some feedback on her website design and business model.
At the end of the e-mail, he made it a point to say,
As such, at least for the time being, I may have a sufficient COI regarding this case that I should not edit the article or do anything "official" ... so please treat any emails from me about this as emails from a friend of a BLP, not as policy or anything similar to that. (And, as I say, other than posting direct clarifications after talking to Rachel, I intend to just steer clear of it completely.) This is particularly important ... [because] I want to be particularly careful not to give anyone an excuse to make up bizarre allegations.
After the e-mail was sent, two edits were made to Rachel Marsden by JzG. These edits concerned an incident involving Marsden and a Canadian counterterrorism officer with whom she was having an affair. The edits changed the timeline of the events, in line with a source, added some cited information, and removed a reference to sexually-explicit photos purported to be of the officer, along with e-mails purportedly from the officer, sent by Marsden to the National Post. The National Post had said of the latter that "the photos do not show the man's face, and the newspaper could not verify the origins of the images and accompanying letters.", commenting that she also had made claims of a long term relationship in that case, which the officer had denied.
Marsden's biography has been the source of much controversy, mostly involving her role in the Simon Fraser University 1997 harassment controversy. An arbitration case, requested by RachelMarsden, banned Arthur Ellis for one month, and additionally instituted the following two remedies:
* Articles which relate to Rachel Marsden, may, when they violate Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons, be reduced to a stub by any user or deleted, together with their talk pages, by any administrator. Removal of poorly sourced negative information or of blocks of grossly unbalanced negative material is not subject to the three revert rule. Such material may be removed without limit.
- Bearcat and Bucketsofg are expected to conform to Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons rather than the liberal interpretation they have applied.
After the story became public, Wales issued a public response, originally published in his userspace and later moved to his personal blog:
Over the last few days, a few gossip websites have decided that my personal life is somehow of interest to people and, against my wishes, are publicizing details about a brief relationship I had with Rachel Marsden. While, typically, this would not warrant a response, because my role with Wikipedia is being dragged into it, I felt the need to set the record straight on a couple of issues.
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 February 9th, 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.
The second, and far more important, issue is this false notion which is being peddled that I intervened inappropriately to redraft her Wikipedia biography. The facts are that, in Wikipedia, I work closely with a team called “OTRS,” which handles email complaints and works hard to address concerns relating to the biographies of living persons. Rachel Marsden first approached me via email two years ago with complaints about her bio. We had never met. I subsequently reviewed her bio and I found it not to be up to our standards. My involvement in cases like this is completely routine, and I am proud of it.
I decided to meet Rachel Marsden in person for the first time in early February of this year. Accordingly, three days before that meeting, to avoid any appearance of a potential conflict of interest, I disclosed my plans to OTRS and further disclosed that it was a personal matter. I recused myself from any further official action with respect to her biography.
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.
The response emphasizes Wales' contention that their relationship began in February, after his e-mail to the OTRS list. Valleywag had claimed that the relationship began "last fall". The Signpost contacted Marsden regarding the date disparity, but she chose not to comment on the story.
Marsden did talk to The Canadian Press, however; there, she claimed that this statement was made before she was told of the breakup, and that she was first told via an instant message from Wales. In response to the breakup, Marsden placed a T-shirt and sweater, which she claimed were Wales', on eBay. As of press time, bidding on the T-shirt was at US$2,025 (with earlier, discounted bids as high as $15,000), while bidding on the sweater was at $857.47.
After the story broke on Valleywag, the story did not initially gain much mainstream press coverage. The first mainstream coverage came from The Canadian Press (syndicated on the website of CBC News), which focused mainly on Marsden's involvement in the relationship. Since that initial article, the issue has received coverage by various press sources:
Following the revelation of his relationship, former Foundation employee Danny Wool alleged in a blog post that Wales had had affairs previously. More controversial, however, was an allegation that Wales was careless when dealing with Foundation monies:
[Wales] was certainly not frugal in his spending on his endless trips abroad, but when it came to handing in receipts, he could be somewhat careless. At one point he owed the Foundation some $30,000 in receipts, and this while we were preparing for the audit. Not a bad sum, considering that many of those trips had fat honoraria, which Jimbeau kept for himself. (Florence will surely remember his explanation for one of these: "I don’t make any money, and my wife needs a washing machine." Her response was wonderful: "A gold-plated washing machine?")
So [Wales] cancelled an upcoming trip to Italy, Serbia, and Croatia, and got to work finding receipts. I helped process them. ... In the end he reached a deal with Brad — details unknown — and paid the Foundation about $7,000 in two checks. I don't know what happened with the rest, but the checks can be found in the list of donors.
A later post clarified,
This questionable use of Foundation funds stopped in 2006, largely because Jimbeau's credit card was taken away [by the Board of Trustees]. I do not believe, nor do I have any reason to believe, that it is continuing.
In response to the first story, Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner replied,
Over the past few days, I've been struggling a little with how to respond to this. I don't want to get drawn into a long back-and-forth in which Danny makes an ongoing series of loose insinuations, and the Foundation then needs to painstakingly reconstruct past events in order to refute him point-by-point. So I'm going to make one simple statement: Jimmy has never used Wikimedia money to subsidize his personal expenditures. Indeed, he 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.
Wales has not yet made any statement regarding Wool's allegations; the allegations received press attention in a Valleywag post, and a Wired News piece on Monday (syndicated by ABC News and published there on Tuesday).
Perhaps most public of all is a just-released Associated Press article, which has been syndicated through the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other sources. The article mentions Wales' relationship with Marsden, but deals mainly with Wool's allegations of financial impropriety. In an interview with the Associated Press, Foundation Chair Florence Devouard defended Wales, but was quoted in a private exchange with board members as saying to Wales, "I find (it) tiring to see how you are constantly trying to rewrite the past. Get a grip!"
The article also quotes Wales, in response to a question about Devouard's e-mail: "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." Former Foundation general counsel and interim executive director Brad Patrick, meanwhile, said Wool had been "irresponsibly erroneous" and "seems interested in blogging his way straight to a lawsuit," in an exchange with the AP.