News and analysis
March 17, 2011

Secret Recording Explores Relationship Between Billionaire Soros and NPR

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George Soros

The Open Society Institute, the philanthropy created by the billionaire George Soros, is the latest nonprofit group to become a target of the controversial videographer James O’Keefe.

In a secretly recorded telephone conversation released today by Mr. O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, Betsy Liley, a top NPR fund raiser, is heard saying that the Open Society Institute opted against on-air credit for its $1.8-million donation to NPR last year to avoid negative publicity associated with the firing of Juan Williams, an NPR senior news analyst.

The tape marks the third time this month that Mr. O’Keefe has released a secret recording involving a top NPR fund raiser. In each case, the NPR official is heard talking to a staff member of Mr. O’Keefe’s Project Veritas who was posing as a donor from the fictitious Muslim Education Action Center. The tape’s release came on the day when the House was voting to end federal funds to NPR.

As a preface to the latest recording, Mr. O’Keefe narrates: “In another phone call to NPR on the morning of February 28, Betsy Liley … explains about George Soros deciding not to use on-air credits in exchange for his donation of $1.8-million.

“Betsy Liley went on to explain this was not the first time George Soros’s Open Society Institute had donated to NPR. In fact, the public will learn for the first time that George Soros’s Open Society Foundation has donated to NPR in the past, starting as many as 15 years ago.”

Ms. Liley was placed on administrative leave last week when Mr. O’Keefe released the first tape of her and her boss, Ronald Schiller, at lunch with the donors who turned out be pulling a ruse. Two days later, Mr. O’Keefe released a tape in which Ms. Liley explained how the donors could keep any donation to NPR anonymous and off the radar of government auditors.

Previous Grants

Maria Archuleta, a spokeswoman for the Open Society Institute, said the organization has had a longstanding policy of not taking on-air credit for its grants to NPR.

“We haven’t taken on-air credit for the last 10 years,” Ms. Archuleta said. “We just don’t feel the need to take credit. For us, it’s about the issues. The press release [regarding the $1.8-million donation to NPR] went out before Juan Williams was fired.”

Open Society had given $237,411 in 1997 and 1998 directly to NPR for four grants to support a criminal-justice series, coverage of crime and related issues, and reports in Central Asia, Ms. Archuleta said. The organization has also provided 34 grants from 1997 to 2010 to local NPR member stations and specific programs that have totaled nearly $3.4-million. Recipients have included WNYC radio, Pacific News Service, and Minnesota Public Radio. The local grant information has been publicly available on Open Society’s annual informational tax return, Ms. Archuleta added.

No On-Air Credit

In an e-mail to The Chronicle, NPR officials said they had no comment. Calls to Ms. Liley’s office have not been returned. The Chronicle’s review of the tape shows that it does not include any direct quotes from Ms. Liley saying that its donation to NPR was made on the condition that it not be mentioned on air.

However, it includes statements from Ms. Liley saying that Open Society was afraid of calling attention to its ties to NPR following the controversial firing of Mr. Williams.

“Some of our donors have chosen not to use the on-air credits. So George Soros and the Open Society Institute gave us $1.8-million and they have decided not to use on-air credits because of what is happening in Congress,” Ms. Liley said on the Project Veritas tape.

“In the fall, when Juan Williams was fired, a number of the conservative press linked the George Soros gift and the Juan Williams firing to each other and suggested that this was the liberals run amok. Which, they’re separate things. They have nothing to do with each other. No one here has even met Mr. Soros. I bring it up as just an example of choices that different people make.”

Later in the tape, Ms. Liley said: “The Open Society Institute was getting, the conservatives were, on some of the Web sites, were having people call his foundation. The press was calling, and so it became, they got roped into the Juan Williams thing, which they didn’t feel like they needed to be.”

Attempts to Meet CEO

Prior videos by Mr. O’Keefe have been called into question for their editing. The 20-minute Project Veritas tape includes edited portions with narration and music for the first five minutes and 48 seconds, then a recording of what it says is the “complete phone call” to Ms. Liley.

However about 11 minutes and 50 minutes into the tape, there appears to be at least one cut in the audio. In the tape, “Mr. Kasaam,” the representative from the fictitious Muslim Education Action Center, is heard making several attempts to arrange a meeting with Vivian Schiller, NPR’s then chief executive. Ms. Liley says in the recording that she was going to try to arrange a meeting.

Ms. Schiller resigned from her post as chief executive last week amid the controversy over the recording.

Today’s release includes audio of Ms. Liley discussing the potential gift.

The man posing as Ms. Kasaam told her the “The board already set aside a fair amount for our meeting in January for NPR. They were very close to a decision and they’ve already approved it.”

“Oh, wow. Wow. Wow,” Ms. Liley said. NPR has said it never agreed to accept the gift, which the fake donors said might be as much as $5-million.

However Ms. Liley is also heard saying on the tape that more research of the group was needed. She asked for financial records and other information.