By Terence O'Hara
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006
Memories fade, but the Internet is forever.
Murry N. Gunty found that out the hard way this summer. Well known among Washington financiers, the head of Milestone Capital Management LLC ran afoul of bloggers for an attempt to censor a Web article about a 1992 incident in which he manipulated the election for officers of the Harvard Business School's Finance Club. The matter was widely reported at the time, including on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and Gunty atoned by resigning from the club and writing an ethics paper.
But when he tried to stifle a recent recitation of those facts on the Web, his personal history morphed into a morality play about the dangers of challenging the blogosphere. Instead of being described as a moderately successful and scrupulous private equity investor, he was offered as an example of greedy misbehavior and corporate censorship.
"Fifteen years ago when I was in school, I made an error in judgment, which was a meaningful life lesson," Gunty said in a written statement issued by a spokesman for Patton Boggs LLP, Milestone's law firm. "Unfortunately, what has been written about me on the Internet significantly distorts the facts. This is a cautionary tale that things live on in cyberspace regardless of their accuracy."
After graduate school, Gunty went on to a successful career at several Wall Street institutions, mostly in private equity, a wing of corporate finance that uses money from wealthy individuals or institutions to buy real estate, companies or other private assets.
Four years ago, he teamed up with veteran D.C. banker Robert P. Pincus to form Milestone Capital. The two raised $90 million, and invested it in such ventures as a Florida tile company, a maker of Christmas ornaments and dozens of Papa John's pizza franchises.
The Harvard flap seemed like ancient history until Silicon Valley entrepreneur Mark Pincus -- no relation to Gunty's business partner -- resurrected it. Pincus, who founded the social networking site Tribe.net, is a former Harvard classmate of Gunty's who frequently posts long essays about how the ethical lapses of U.S. business executives rarely result in substantial punishment. On Jan. 19, 2006, he posted an essay that used Gunty as a prominent example.
"I have nothing personal against the guy at all," said Pincus, whose original post included numerous disparaging personal remarks about Gunty. "I write about ethics all the time. It's something I'm passionate about. If Murry had responded on my blog, the whole thing would have just ended there."
In fact, it was just beginning.
Pincus's comments attracted dozens of posters eager to scold Gunty, and it quickly spread to several other bloggers who started their own discussion strings about the long-ago incident. "If Murry Gunty didn't exist, we'd have to invent him," one liberal blogger, Frank Paynter, wrote. Gunty's photo was posted on Pincus's blog and various aspects of his life and work were ridiculed.
By July, seven months after the original posting, Pincus's version of Gunty's story had climbed to the top ranking on a Google search for "Murry Gunty" -- above his official biography on Milestone Capital's web site. His Milestone bio is now back on top, however.
It got worse. According to two sources with knowledge of the situation, Gunty or someone representing him sent an e-mail to Six Apart Ltd., the company that hosted Pincus's blog, asking that the article be changed because it was a violation of privacy. The sources spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were describing nonpublic communications at Six Apart.
When a Six Apart staffer asked Pincus to at least remove Gunty's last name from the posting, Pincus responded by posting the request on his blog -- escalating the issue beyond corporate ethics to a matter of free speech.
Six Apart quickly backed down, saying through a spokeswoman that the company does not censor its bloggers, and that the request to Pincus had come from a "young, eager person" who "totally misread the situation."
Within a matter of days Gunty had his own entry in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, detailing the controversy, and a new round of bloggers were criticizing his effort to tame the Internet.
"Free speech is one of those topics in the blogosphere that you just don't touch," wrote tech blogger Scott Johnson, explaining the hundreds of links to Pincus's site that began popping up on blogs and chat rooms after Six Apart sought to have it changed.
The Wikipedia entry has since been removed. An editor for the online encyclopedia did not respond to a request to explain why.
But the lesson stands.
Gunty declined to be interviewed for this story. A colleague, who spoke only on the condition he not be named, said Gunty "felt really burned by the whole thing."
Stan Collender, a public relations specialist at Qorvis Communications LLC in the District, said the potential for bloggers to damage the reputation of a business or person is a growing concern.
"It's like pamphleteering on the corner, only its cheaper, quicker and vastly more broad," Collender said. "But unlike the traditional media, it's completely unregulated in that there's no fact checking, no editing. It has all the potential for creating a lot of damage to someone's or something's reputation very quickly, and it's almost impossible to eliminate it. Any unsubstantiated rumor has a very good chance of getting out there."
However, Collender said it is usually a mistake to try to squelch it.
"If you respond to this sort of thing you give it credit it doesn't deserve," he said.