CNBC's Bartiromo Flies Into Citigroup Controversy
Friday, January 26, 2007
Maria Bartiromo, CNBC's star business anchor, has been thrust into the spotlight by the disclosure that her friendship and travels with a top Citigroup executive played a role in his ouster.
Now it turns out that Bartiromo made nearly 50 appearances last year for corporations, trade associations and other groups, with three of them involving Citigroup in such far-flung locales as London and Hong Kong.
CNBC executives say they approved and paid for each trip, and reimbursed Citigroup for the corporate flight. But the time and distance involved raise questions about how close Bartiromo has gotten to some companies she covers and whether she has become more of a celebrity journalist than the Wall Street workhorse of her earlier years.
"Maria Bartiromo is one of the most prolific and well-respected financial journalists in the industry, who works tirelessly around the world in the service of business journalism," the network said in a statement. "In 2006 alone, she made 46 public appearances on behalf of CNBC. Her travel has been company-related and approved, and involved legitimate business assignments. Her record and reporting speak for themselves."
Todd Thomson, chief of Citigroup's wealth management unit, was forced out last weekend, and part of the reason, the Wall Street Journal reported, was that Thomson spent more than $5 million to sponsor a Sundance Channel program whose hosts were to include Bartiromo and actor Robert Redford.
In one instance, the Journal said, Bartiromo spoke to Citigroup's private-banking clients at luncheons in Hong Kong and Shanghai at Thomson's request, and flew back to the United States with him on the firm's corporate jet. After that, the Journal said, their friendship became an issue and Thomson's boss ordered him not to spend any further company money on events involving Bartiromo.
Bartiromo also spoke at a Citigroup client dinner in London last year after attending a CNBC event in that city with her husband.
While some of the 46 events involved other major corporations, such as Google, Charles Schwab and General Electric, they also included appearances on behalf of the AARP, Milken Institute, New York University and various charities.
CNBC executives say that Bartiromo was fostering positive publicity for herself and her network while developing high-level sources among companies she covers. "I don't think there's even the appearance of a conflict of interest," said one executive who asked not to be identified while discussing personnel matters. "We paid our way. This is what we cover. This is what we do."