Secretly recorded phone calls cast NPR fundraiser in unflattering light

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10:38 PM

An NPR fundraising executive said her organization would be willing to shield a would-be donor from a government audit by keeping the donor's name anonymous, according to a series of surreptitiously recorded phone calls released Thursday by a conservative activist.

Betsy Liley, NPR's senior director of institutional giving, made the comments to a man posing as a trustee of a fictitious Muslim charity, which the man had said had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egypt-based group that has suspected ties to terrorists.

Liley's conversations with the man were captured as part of a sting operation orchestrated by James O'Keefe, who has targeted the ACORN community group and Planned Parenthood with secret recordings.

O'Keefe secretly videotaped Liley's boss, Ron Schiller, making demeaning comments about conservatives during a luncheon meeting set up to discuss what the NPR managers believed was a potential $5 million contribution. Liley was also at that meeting and briefly comments in the video.

Ron Schiller resigned from NPR on Tuesday for his role in the video scandal. The video's release also led to the resignation Wednesday of his boss, NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron Schiller).

In a lengthy follow-up phone call with Liley after the lunch, an O'Keefe associate posing as "Ibrahim Kasaam" of the Muslim Education Action Center (a fictitious entity) expressed concerns that NPR, which receives government funding, would be subject to government audits or would have to disclose the source of its donations.

Liley responded, "If you were concerned about that, you might want to be an anonymous donor and we would certainly, if that was your interest, we would want to shield you from that."

At another point, Kasaam asked Liley, "It sounded like you're saying that NPR would be able to shield us from a government audit, is that correct?"

"I think that is the case, especially if you were anonymous, and I can inquire about that," Liley said. She later informed Kasaam via e-mail that NPR's management had cleared an anonymous donation from his group.

NPR had previously said, in the wake of the luncheon video, that it had "repeatedly refused" to accept donations from the organization.

NPR put Liley on administrative leave as a result of the video.

It's not illegal for a nonprofit organization to accept a contribution from a donor that wishes to remain anonymous. But in this case, the issue appears to be how far would NPR have gone to protect the anonymity of a potentially unsavory donor - one that might have connections to interests hostile to the United States.

An NPR spokeswoman, Anna Christopher, had no comment on the phone recording. But she said: "All donations, anonymous and named, are reported to the IRS. NPR complies fully with all tax and financial disclosure regulations."

NPR issued a statement late Thursday that said, "The statement made by Betsy Liley in the audio tapes released today regarding the possibility of making an anonymous gift that would remain invisible to tax authorities is factually inaccurate and not reflective of NPR's gift practices. . . . NPR will not be deterred from its news mission and will ultimately be judged by the millions and millions of listeners and readers who have come to rely on us every day."

In a related development, more than 20 NPR journalists - including Cokie Roberts, Robert Siegel and Susan Stamberg - said in an open letter to listeners that the journalists were appalled by the comments Ron Schiller made in the video.

"Those comments have done real damage to NPR," they said in the letter. "But we're confident that the culture of professionalism we have built, and the journalistic values we have upheld for the past four decades, will prevail."

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