June 16, 2008

Journalist's Speaking Fees Come Under Scrutiny

The journalist Bob Woodward has come under criticism by Harper’s Magazine for agreeing to accept generous public-speaking fees from banking and financial organizations for his private foundation.

Mr. Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal as a journalist for The Washington Post, had previously been critical of reporters who accept money for public speaking, saying in a 1996 interview, “I don’t think it helps their reputation.”

But Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of the magazine, writes on the magazine’s Web site that Mr. Woodward has performed paid speeches for financial companies such as Countrywide Financial, which has come under scrutiny for its role in the subprime meltdown.

Mr. Woodward said in the 1996 interview that he donates any money he earns from public speaking to charity, most notably the Woodward Walsh Foundation, a private foundation he runs with his wife, Elsa Walsh.

A review of the Woodward Walsh Foundation’s 2007 informational tax form shows contributions to the foundation totaling $300,000. Those contributions helped push the foundation’s total assets to more than $1.5-million.

Mr. Woodward and Ms. Walsh, two of the three trustees who oversee the fund, receive no income from the foundation, the tax form shows. The same is true for the third member of its board, Redmond Walsh of Washington.

Mr. Silverstein, however, questions whether Mr. Woodward is being truly charitable by contributing his speaking fees to the foundation.

The Woodward Walsh Foundation distributed $17,555 in grants in 2007 — roughly 1.5 percent of its assets at the beginning of its 2007 tax year.

Many of its grantees include private schools such as the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington and universities including Princeton University and the University of Virginia, according to its tax form.

The Woodward Walsh Foundation contributed more than $135,000 through grants in 2006. Much of that money, roughly $103,000, went to the Sidwell Friends School.

“You’re corrupted if you take money from corporate groups, but not if you give the money to charity? Even if it’s your own personal charity, and you get a tax break, and most of the contributions go to elite causes of direct interest to the donor?” writes Mr. Silverstein. “This looks to be the same sort of double-dealing and hypocrisy that Bob Woodward – at least the old Bob Woodward – would have been all over as a reporter, if a political figure were involved.”