Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2018-12-24/Op-ed

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Wikipedia not trumped by Trump appointee: Did World Patent Marketing pay to get Wikipedia to include flattering information on their board member, now the Acting United States Attorney General?
Smallbones has been a Wikipedia editor for 13 years, contributing to The Signpost regarding paid editing and financial market regulation. He has a Ph.D. in finance and professional experience in finance.
Exterior of the Federal Trade Commission building (3360757186).jpg
Federal Trade Commission offices

On November 30, 2018, the United States Federal Trade Commission released a series of emails and other documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) related to the Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker's work on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing (WPM). The company was a scam, taking up to $400,000 from any hopeful inventor it could hook, while providing few if any services to them.[1] WPM was fined $26 million, the total of its alleged fraudulent take, and was shut down by the FTC in May of 2018.[2]

Whitaker's selection would be controversial even without his involvement in an obvious patent scam. His November 7 appointment by President Donald Trump is widely viewed as having the potential to limit the Mueller investigation into the President. The appointment is being challenged as unconstitutional in several court cases because it avoids the process of confirmation by the Senate. Four hundred former Department of Justice (DOJ) officials have petitioned Trump to replace Whitaker.[3]

The FOIA release included an email from the head of the scam company, which stated "Let's build a Wikipedia page and use Whitaker to make it credible."[4] The editing of Wikipedia articles by scammers is nothing new. For example, editing by employees of binary options scammer Banc de Binary was at times openly declared. Politicians and government officials have also edited articles promoting their careers, including Corey Stewart, who ran in the 2017 Virginia Republican gubernatorial primary while telling CNN of his campaign's Wikipedia edits.[5] But the possible combination of edits made by outright scammers with the possible participation of an official who later achieved a position as high as Acting U.S. Attorney General is unprecedented.

A Signpost investigation of the released documents[6][7] has revealed that an editor with an account name almost identical to that of a WPM PR agent, as named in the FOIA release[8] edited the article on Whitaker, adding external links in the text to both WPM's website and Whitaker's law office. It should be remembered, of course, that no purely on-wiki evidence can prove the editor's real world name. "Joe jobs" are possible, where a user account is created to embarrass the named person. Other suspicious edits include the creation of the English Wikipedia article on Whitaker as a possible autobiography. A resume that Whitaker sent to WPM is included in the released documents. It contains the false statement that Whitaker was awarded the prestigious Academic All-American honor while playing college football.

Football career

Whitaker's football career plays an important part in this investigation. He played football at the University of Iowa for the 1990, 1991, and 1992 seasons including the 1991 Rose Bowl.

While he played in 33 games as a tight end, he was not really a star, catching only 21 passes in his career for 202 yards and two touchdowns.[9] In 1991, his best year, at least four other Iowa receivers surpassed him in each of the above categories.[10] But he was a good student, being honored with the Big Ten Award for University of Iowa student-athletes for each of his three years.

His resume, shown in the FOIA release, was attached to an email to Scott Cooper, CEO of WPM. Both the resume and email contained the claim that he was named an Academic All-American.[11] He was not. A spokesperson for the awarding organization, the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA), told the Signpost that Whitaker is not listed as an Academic All-American.[12][13] Whitaker made the claim not just while applying for an advisory board position at WPM, but also later on the website of the law firm where he was the managing partner,[14] and on a Department of Justice website announcing his 2009 resignation as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.[15]

Whitaker graduated while still playing football and immediately began his legal studies. His law career began slowly with several small law firms. In 2002, he ran for the Iowa state office of Treasurer, losing with 43% of the vote.[16] In 2004, as a fairly young and inexperienced lawyer, President George W. Bush appointed him to the office of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. A Democratic U.S. Attorney replaced him in 2009 and Whitaker resumed private legal practice in a small firm that he headed in Des Moines, Iowa.

In 2006, while Whitaker was still U.S. Attorney, the editor User:Whimat made his only four edits, taking a total of less than 15 minutes. The first and last edits were to the Iowa Hawkeyes football article, listing Matthew G. Whitaker as a "notable player". The editor's second edit was to create the article United States Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa which named Whitaker as the current officeholder. The editor's third edit was to create the article Matthew Whitaker (attorney), a short and factual article that named him as a former Iowa football player.

World Patent Marketing

While continuing to work with his law firm, on October 15, 2014, Whitaker joined the WPM advisory board. Several members of this board did not actively contribute to WPM's operations, but allowed it to use their names and photos for marketing purposes. Whitaker was more involved with the company. He was paid for some legal advice and answered or forwarded emails from disgruntled customers. He even discussed appearing in WPM marketing videos.[17]

Email Nov 21 2014 from WPM released FTC FOIA.jpeg
From the FOIA file

On November 21, 2014, WPM's CEO, Scott Cooper, suggested "Let's build a Wikipedia page and use Whitaker to make it credible".[4] There's no record of an attempt to create an article on WPM at this time, but on December 29 User:Vinnylabarbera added links to the websites of both Whitaker's law office and WPM to the article on Whitaker. The FOIA release lists a business associate of WPM with a nearly identical name as the CEO of an online PR firm. The same editor drafted an article on another member of the WPM advisory board at User:Vinnylabarbera/sandbox.[18]

The simple external links added to the text were later supplemented by other editors, with the section on WPM in the Whitaker article growing into a very large paragraph by the time Whitaker was named Acting Attorney General.

Appointments at the DOJ

In October 2017 Whitaker was appointed to be chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The FTC had previously subpoenaed documents from Whitaker related to the WPM case. A surprised FTC investigator emailed his colleagues "You're not going to believe this. Matt Whitaker is now chief of staff to the Attorney General. Of the United States."[19]

Voicemail from Matthew Whitaker to Federal Trade Commission staff, October 2017

FTC staff reminded Whitaker by voicemail that the subpoenaed material was overdue. Whitaker's voicemail response was included in the FOIA release. According to The Washington Post, the subpoenaed material was likely never given to the FTC.[19]

On November 7, 2018, the FTC staff were surprised again. Whitaker had just been appointed Acting Attorney General by President Trump. The staff anticipated questions from reporters and seemed anxious about how much information about Whitaker and the scam was already public. What to do? They checked the Wikipedia article on Whitaker. One staffer wrote

With Sessions' resignation, the Acting AG is Matthew Whitaker. Whitaker was an "Advisory Board" member of World Patent Marketing, and may have done some legal work for Scott Cooper. We subpoenaed his law firm last year. His Wikipedia page has a whole paragraph on his involvement with WPM (as of the sending of this email).

Wanted to give you a heads-up in case there is press/public attention.[20]

The section of our article on Whitaker that started with the insertion of an external link to WPM had grown to a 218-word paragraph with five references.

Conclusion

Several questions about Matthew Whitaker and World Patent Marketing were considered in this Signpost investigation.

  • Did WPM, as it had planned, submit an article about itself to Wikipedia using Whitaker's name to give the company credibility?
    • No evidence of such a submission was found.
  • Did WPM edit Wikipedia to help promote its scam?
    • Some of the evidence relies on the name of a user account that is nearly identical to the name of the CEO of a PR firm that worked for WPM. Like much on-wiki evidence, it can not be definitively proved that the user account was used to edit by WPM's PR agent. That said, there is circumstantial evidence that WPM’s PR agent linked the article on Whittaker to WPM's website, and that he submitted a draft article about another member of WPM's advisory board.
  • Did Matthew Whitaker create an autobiographical article on Wikipedia?
    • Given the limitations of on-wiki evidence it is impossible to say for sure, but there is evidence that he did create the Wikipedia article about himself.
  • Did Whitaker mislead the American people?
    • Based on evidence contained in the FOIA release published by the FTC and other evidence discovered in this investigation about his claim of being awarded the prestigious Academic All-American honor:
      • Whitaker misled Scott Cooper of WPM when he submitted his resume and a cover email.
      • He misled his current and potential legal clients when he posted the claim on his law firm's website.
      • He misled everyone when he repeated the claim on a Department of Justice website.

Matthew Whitaker and the Department of Justice's Office of Public Affairs did not respond to emailed requests for comment by copy-deadline.

Update

After the publication of this article, Steve Roe, the University of Iowa Assistant Athletic Director for Communications contacted The Signpost, noting that the 1993 Media Guide for University of Iowa Football cited Whitaker as "GTE District VII academic all-American", which might explain Whitaker's claims.

The media guide should have more accurately stated "GTE District VII Academic All-District".

Given the possibility that Whitaker might also have been confused about the status of his award or relied on the Media Guide, we have replaced the word "lied" with "misled" in the text under "Conclusion".


  1. ^ Shammas, Brittany (22 August 2017). "A Miami Beach Scam Took Millions of Dollars from Thousands of Inventors, Feds Say". Miami New Times. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
  2. ^ Leonnig, Carol D.; Rosalind S., Helderman (November 9, 2018). "Federal Investigators Scrutinized Whitaker's Role in Patent Company Accused of Fraud, According to People with Knowledge of Case". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 22, 2018.
  3. ^ Johnson, Kevin (December 4, 2018). "400 DOJ Alums Sign Statement Opposing Acting AG Matthew Whitaker". USA Today.
  4. ^ a b FOIA release, search "November 21, 2014"
  5. ^ Kaczynski, Andrew; McDermott, Nathan (March 23, 2017). "Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Removed Unflattering Info from Wikipedia Page". CNN.
  6. ^ FTC listing of all files in the release
  7. ^ FOIA release. This is a large unstructured document released under the Freedom of Information Act. Search "wiki" to find many of the relevant documents
  8. ^ FOIA release, search "9024"
  9. ^ "Matt Whitaker" Sports-reference.com
  10. ^ "1991 Iowa Hawkeyes Stats" Sports-reference.com
  11. ^ FOIA release, search "Academic"
  12. ^ In a December 21 email to the author of this piece, the CoSIDA spokesperson requested that this article include the following wording: Whitaker "is not listed on the Academic All-America honors lists, a national scholar-athlete honor selected by members of the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA)."
  13. ^ The official full list of *all* Academic All-Americans. This is a very large file; search "Whitaker" or "Iowa". Year-by-year records for football are also available
  14. ^ archived at archive.org
  15. ^ archived at archive.org
  16. ^ "2002 State Treasurer General Election Results – Iowa". Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. April 1, 2007. Retrieved December 20, 2018.
  17. ^ Hamburger, Tom; Leonnig, Carol D.; Helderman, Rosalind S. (November 14, 2018). "'He Was Yelling': Whitaker Pushed Back Against Early Fraud Complaints About Company He Advised". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 20, 2018.
  18. ^ Since the article has been deleted, only administrators can view the contents of this draft article
  19. ^ a b Leonnig, Carol D.; Helderman, Rosalind S.; Hamburger, Tom (November 11, 2018). "Whitaker Fielded Early Fraud Complaints from Customers at Patent Company Even as He Championed It, Records Show". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 20, 2018.
  20. ^ FOIA release, search for "Wiki"