Drama at the Richard Dawkins Foundation… October 23, 2010

Drama at the Richard Dawkins Foundation…

This report is all I’m seeing about the story, but if it’s true, it’s a doozy:

Evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins claims an employee of his Foundation for Reason and Science embezzled $375,000 from the online store he ran for Dawkins’ charity, by claiming it made only $30,000 in 3 years.

Dawkins says he found out about the scam this year, when the Foundation decided to wrest control of the store from [Josh] Timonen.

Timonen handed over financial books that detailed his embezzlement, Dawkins says, including $500 meals, trips to Timberline Lodge in Oregon and the Malibu Beach Inn, and $314,000 in “salaries” paid to Timonen and his girlfriend -though Timonen and the Foundation agreed that the $278,000 it was aware of paying him would be his combined salary for running the store and performing his other duties.

Timonen’s “significantly older” girlfriend, defendant Maureen Norton, allegedly used at least $100,000 of the charity’s money to upgrade her Sherman Oaks home before she put it on the market.

Dawkins demands $950,000 plus punitive damages from Timonen, Norton and Upper Branch Productions. He and the Foundation are represented by Blaine Greenberg of Encino.

It’s never pretty to see drama within the movement, especially when it involves someone you thought had a vested interest in the mission of the RDF. I hope this gets resolved quickly…

As far as I can tell, Timonen hasn’t issued any statement in his defense.

***Update***: Josh Timonen issued a statement on his website:

With the internet, you can so easily spread outrageous lies, destroy someone’s reputation, self-worth and dignity, and not even have any evidence to back up your malicious attacks. And it amazes me that so many people are so quick to spew venom about people and a situation they know nothing about. Even after my name is cleared, the words and attacks will remain.

I worked myself to the bone over the last four years to promote reason and science, hoping that my small role in this movement could affect some lasting positive change. I refuse to let this smear campaign destroy me. I created the Scarlet Letter “A” icon and its associated campaign to bring us all together, not tear us apart. I hope to be able to continue on that mission.

This lawsuit is a joke, and completely ridiculous. The accusations are baseless and unfounded.

I will be releasing a public statement soon through my legal team Costa Abrams & Coate, LLP.

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  • Dave

    That is really sad to hear. Timonen was such a huge part of the RichardDawkins.net web site over the years. I’ve bought stuff from the store specifically to help the foundation. If this is true, I’m going to be hella pissed!

  • Barbara

    That is unfortunate. I have purchased from the store and get updates from the website. I would hate to think that someone would take advantage of this partnership. Ultimately greed often trumps common sense and honesty.

  • Danny Wuvs Kittens

    “-though Timonen and the Foundation agreed that the $278,000 it was aware of paying him would be his combined salary for running the store and performing his other duties.”

    278K? There is so much wrong with this. Web design isn’t rocket science, and a lot of designers want jobs PERIOD, let alone for the ridiculous amount of 278k. I just visited the website, its a white background with some links. “Other duties” what, does he defend the office from terrorist ninja dragons or something? The website literally could have been made in wordpress with no more education that online tutorials.

    Oh, but that’s not it. 278k isn’t enough, he wants MORE.

    Goddamn…I hope some of these numbers are wrong…if not…I hope this guy spends the rest of his life in prison. How dare he accept a webdesign salary of 278k for a charity organization, let alone STEAL MORE MONEY AND LIE.

    Edit:Okay, I must of read it wrong at first or someone else is wrong.

    He made 287k over 3 and 1/2 years, or 82k a year, for something that teenagers do as a hobby and a job most people would kill for.

    His other duties were producing youtube videos. Fucking wow. I still say this guy deserves life in prison.

  • JD

    This isn’t the first scandal we’ve heard of involving this person.
    By many reports, the closing of Dawkins forum was very poorly and abruptly handled, with Josh Timonen heading the forum. That happened only half a year ago. By the same reports, mods, administrators and users were abruptly locked out, no announcement or warning was made. All this from one of the largest Atheist-oriented web forums in the world.

  • Chris Ho-Stuart

    Oh my. There is going to be much schadenfreude over this. Josh hit the airwaves bigtime over the closure of forums at RDF, and he garnered a heck of a lot of criticism and anger from members and staff at the forum. Richard Dawkins at the time sprang to his defense, but then apologised for the way he spoke about other members of the forum shortly after. The whole thing was quite ugly and probably did significant damage to the RDF, in terms of alienating a large part of the support base.

    A blog at the time from another insider with a fair post recognizing their own biases on the matter: Death of the Dawkins forum – The world’s busiest atheist forum closes. There’s a lot more on the net about this closure fiasco if you search around for it.

  • Kevin

    @JD – I knew the name was familiar. Even from my outsider-looking-in perspective, the allegations made against Josh during that debacle, the evidence backing said accusations, and Dawkin’s blind support (and refusal to address/apologize) for Josh’s actions was enough to forever cloud my perception of the organization.

  • Pony

    I’d like to second the comments by JD and Chris, and add that this development makes this kind of ironic. (Don’tcha think.)

  • LisaR

    Very sad to read this has happened to Richard and RDF. Also a bit disappointing, because it appears that Richard put too much “faith” in Timonen and didn’t maintain enough skepticism about this business relationship. Hope it gets resolved in Richard’s favor and Timonen has to pay back every time and loses all business credibility and never gets to handle anyone else’s money ever again.

  • The really sad part is, he was so trusted and supposed friend that Dawkins latest book “The Greatest Show On Earth” was for Josh Timonen. I’m willing to bet anything published and printed from this point on won’t have the “For Josh Timonen” before the Preface.

  • I can also imagine the whole last paragraph that praises Josh will be left out going forward as well in the preface where he gives thanks.

  • kyle s.

    did dawkins flip a table and beat him into a bloody pulp? that’s always fun.

  • dglas

    80,000+ atheists cast to the four winds, and now embezzlement?

    I bet Comfort and the ID folks wish they could cause that kind of damage to Dawkins’ efforts…

  • Heidi

    I read as far as the word embezzled, & I thought, “it’s that clown from the forum thing, isn’t it?”

  • Grimalkin

    Wow… It looks like this guy has been doing pretty much the exact same job that I do for approximately 3x the pay…

    Didn’t the RDF have an accountant going over all the books? Weren’t they reporting to the government? Here in Canada, filling out the T3010s forces NFPs to have quite a bit of financial oversight. Doesn’t the UK have something similar?

  • @Grimalkin,

    It was more than just running/designing the website, it was putting together the videos to sell, taking care of the merchandise in the online store, keeping the books and finances from it, etc. But remember, that 287k was for 3 years of work, not one year salary. That’s probably at least twice the amount anyone should have been paid for the job.

  • Grimalkin

    @Drew – Oh yes, I took that into account. I do web (which includes online store, though not the merchandise) and produce my company’s videos. While I don’t keep books, I do mind my own budgets and assist our finance department (especially during tax season). He’s making about $95K/year. That’s just incredible, and he is NOT doing a job that’s worth 3x what I make…

  • @Grimalkin,

    Was making, not making any more. 😉

    According to his (Timonen) websites, he’s done work for Hitchens, Shermer and others, hopefully Dawkins gave them all a call to give them a heads up. This is the type of suit that will ruin this guys career, but he did it to himself, I have no sympathy for him if it turns out all true.

  • Grimalkin

    @Drew – Indeed, thanks for the correction! And thank whomever for the past tense in this case. The guy sounds like a Grade A jerk.

    With him booted, and that kind of salary hanging in the air, think the RDF will hire me? 😉

  • Joe

    …That’s what happened to my “A” pin order…

  • Richard L

    I used to be on the board of a student association on my University. The year before I got on the board, a guy embezzled like $15,000 which our economy person caught when looking over the numbers.

    It’s about more than just the money. It’s about trust and action. We couldn’t really do that much during the year because we didn’t really trust the cause of the organisation so we slimmed it down to the most basic possible. Thus, less than we could do got done.

    I hope nothing similar happens to Dawkins’ cause and his site…

  • Richard P.

    That’s just incredible, and he is NOT doing a job that’s worth 3x what I make…


    Don’t you mean Holy shit, me and my boss are having a talk on Monday, I’m definitely under paid for my position.

    It’s really a matter of perspective I guess.

  • Ben Finney

    They’re certainly whooping it up with the schadenfreude over at rationalia.com.

    If it’s true, I feel no glee over it. I wish Richard had been rather more skeptical, especially in the face of evidence that Josh was not working well with the community earlier this year; but I can hardly blame a busy man like Richard for finding a trusted lieutenant to share a huge workload.

  • Wilde

    http://joshtimonen.com/post/1387207318/the-ultimate-betrayal This is what Josh Timonen has to say on the matter so far.

  • sadpanda

    An interesting sidenote looking at RDFRS’ Form 990 seems like Elon Musk contributed $100,000 in 2008 and probably in 2009 too, wonder what he’s going to think when he hears of this.

    Acording to the 990 form, Josh got paid $60,000 in 2008 and $74,569 in 2009 for “Video Production”.

  • sadpanda

    Here are RDFRS 990 forms if anyone’s interested:


  • This is definitely a huge disappointment.

    But aside from it, I just finished reading the original story on this (that Hemant linked in) and it says that Dawkins, in filling out his formal legal complaint, described himself as the world’s most known and respected atheist. Man, seriously? He’s really gonna write that down?

  • Chris Ho-Stuart

    You can now update the end of your post to say that Timonen has posted a denial, but without any specifics, at his website. See The Ultimate Betrayal. He indicates he will make another more detailed statement through his own lawyers. I’m curious to see what on Earth it might be, but willing to wait.

  • Epistaxis

    At $278k over 3.5 years, he was already robbing them.

  • Claudia

    I recognized the name from the forums debacle. He’s innocent until proven guilty of course, but it sure smells fishy that the same guy who oversaw the blow-up before is involved in this now. The first impression is that Dawkins was blinded by his friendship and didn’t want to see what was obvious to many others; that this guy was a tool.

    Always assuming the allegations are true, I hope Dawkins gets him for all he’s worth and uses a bit of that money to set up some fantastic open forums, as a part of the healing.

    I do have one nitpick though. What the fuck is up with the “significantly older” girlfriend? Sure it’s relevant if he diverted money to his girlfriend, but in what earthly fashion is her age relevant. Would it be less dickish if she were young? The article doesn’t mention if she’s left or right handed. WTF?

  • Aj

    I understand the resentment from the forum incident but these are separate issues. It seems that Richard Dawkins suspected and then hired an investigator or someone was a whistle-blower. This really sucks, if Josh Timonen did this he’s a real shit.

    I would imagine if Richard Dawkins asked he’d get people to do a lot of that work for free. The camera work and editing, probably not for free, but for significantly less. He’s not going to run the store himself. How do you protect yourself from embezzlement? If they run the site they can siphon money at will, the difficult part isn’t hiding it from the the clients.


    I do have one nitpick though. What the fuck is up with the “significantly older” girlfriend?

    Agreed, it’s completely irrelevant. She claims she’s only 10 years older.

    Ron Brown,

    …it says that Dawkins, in filling out his formal legal complaint, described himself as the world’s most known and respected atheist.

    Not quite:

    “the world’s best known and most respected atheist.”

    Is he the person best known who also happens to be atheist? Not even close. Is he the best known person for being an atheist? Probably. “Most respected” doesn’t mean “the most respected”. Granted it’s still incredibly self-aggrandising to describe yourself in these terms, but at least it’s not delusional, it’s pretty accurate.

  • the text, and the descriptions of dawkins and the girlfriend, were most probably written by lawyers.

  • Danish Atheist

    What the fuck is up with the “significantly older” girlfriend?

    Ooooooh you know, he was seduced into sin by this sly older woman …. it is what we do … eat virginal little youths for lunch … (Beware of irony in this comment)

  • JB Tait

    When I read this, my first thought was double agent, mole, or saboteur, as in, did he do this from anti-atheist motivation rather than greed.

    Could he have insinuated himself into the organization and garnered trust specifically and simply in order to ruin it?

  • Jack Rawlinson

    Danish Atheist – believe me, there’s nothing innocent or virginal about Timonen. I haven’t liked or trusted that guy since I saw his lousy behaviour at the 2007 AAI Convention. That, plus the crap he pulled over the old RDF forums makes me less than surprised to see this story. I have long suspected he might be abusing RD’s trust.

  • Danish Atheist

    Ooooooh you know, he was seduced into sin by this sly older woman …. it is what we do … eat virginal little youths for lunch

    Its all true, that’s one reason why I love my older girlfriend so much.

    Regarding the alleged embezzlement I do find it a shame that there seems to be a trial by media going on. I really wish that these things were only reported after the fact. If Timonen is innocent then his career and reputation is still ruined and if he is guilty then surely it can wait until after a court confirms that to ruin him.

  • Simon

    Josh has written a response on his blog: http://joshtimonen.com/post/1387207318/the-ultimate-betrayal

    Although it does conclude:

    I will be releasing a public statement soon through my legal team Costa Abrams & Coate, LLP.

  • Sad little man feels betrayed because he got caught and they stripped him of his recognition for designing a website and some articles he wrote. What he fails to notice and why his blog is on the total defense is if he was paid, RDFR has all rights to pull his name from the site, he has every right to complain but it just makes him look like a pathetic guilty person trying to play victim, any non-psychiatrist could point that obviously out. There’s nothing special about that site (RDF) in which he could claim copyright ownership. I write code and scripts for my job that my employer pays me to do, do I own them, hell no.

  • Just because we’re all atheists, skeptics and freethinkers doesn’t mean we’re not prone to the same human foibles as everyone else. Lots of churches get hit by embezzlers. Greed is pretty ubiquitous, regardless of religious beliefs.

    So now it’s in the courts. One thing, though, that the article doesn’t mention. Embezzlement is a legal term with a legal definition. Generally, it means someone has committed a crime. I didn’t see anything about any criminal proceedings, just a civil lawsuit, which at best sounds like a breach of contract, and perhaps a fraud claim. Punitive damages require fraud.

    If there is enough evidence for a criminal case, the DA will file criminal charges in the appropriate venue, which sounds like somewhere in California. As part of sentencing, if found guilty, he could be required to cough up ill gotten gains. So a civil lawsuit would be somewhat unnecessary to recover the money, if the criminal case was strong. The fact that civil proceeding have been filed indicates, to me, that it is not.

    One other thing. Accusing someone of a crime, when you know it’s not true, is libelous. Publishing a story containing the same allegation might impose liability on the one publishing it, if in fact it’s not true. Just saying…

  • Sarah TX

    This is really sad, but ultimately inevitable when an organization puts too much unverified trust in one member. Power corrupts and all.

    We have an intramural bowling league at work, and last year the league secretary embezzled a few thousand dollars from the prize fund (something like $6000 total that comes from our weekly dues). Ultimately, the entire league leadership is being held responsible because it was their job to oversee the money we entrusted to them.

    This case is no different. If the allegations are true, it shows a serious lapse in judgement from the FFRS leadership team. An employee/volunteer should NOT have unmonitored access to this amount of money.

  • Petron

    As a senior web developer, I’m appalled by many of the comments regarding the pay of web devs. The ignorance is sad and misguided. $80k a year is not uncommon for the kind of work I understand it takes to run the RDF site.

    If these embezzlement charges are true, then that’s the crime here not the salary.

  • muggle

    I wondered a couple of things. Was there no oversight? And hasn’t he been charged with embezzlement. There is something odd in that. It can’t be that they’re embarrassed because then they wouldn’t be suing just telling him to get the hell out of Dodge and never darken their door again or else.

    This sucks and, selfishly, I am also thinking the fundies are going to make much todo about this when, really, that given how Atheist organizations have grown and how people are people wherever, it’s inevitable that one of them would be hit with some scandal like this. And when they do all point and say see amoral Atheists, they will conveniently overlook all the church/religious organizations that have also been victims of embezzlement.

  • Nate Phelps

    WOW! People…what about innocent until proven guilty. This is a skeptical community?!?

  • Revyloution

    The ‘older girlfriend’ comment bugs me. Is it supposed to be immoral to love someone who isn’t within a certain percentage of your age? (excluding pedophilia, of course).

    Who ever wrote that article could have left that bit off. It was tacky, and had no relevance to the story.

  • MH

    Nate, glad I am not the only person with that reaction.

    Also, I agree with Pertron that in a major metropolitan area 80K is not an outrageous salary for skilled labor of any kind.

  • godfree

    Not all thieves are televangelists or preachers.

  • Secular Stu

    As a senior web developer, I’m appalled by many of the comments regarding the pay of web devs. The ignorance is sad and misguided. $80k a year is not uncommon for the kind of work I understand it takes to run the RDF site.

    If these embezzlement charges are true, then that’s the crime here not the salary.

    Ditto. I’m particularly annoyed by dumb comments like:

    He made 287k over 3 and 1/2 years, or 82k a year, for something that teenagers do as a hobby and a job most people would kill for.

    $82k isn’t particularly out of line. (Edit: Ok, it is high for a non-profit.)

  • The law considers you innocent until proven guilty, but in reality your guilty once you’ve done it, and there’s no moral law that says observers shouldn’t reach judgments about what probably happened when they feel it’s appropriate. I’m guessing Timonen is guilty, because:

    (1) It’s hard to see why Dawkins would make this up and

    (2) If Timonen is a malignant narcissist or something similar, it goes a long way towards explaining his behavior during the RDF forum debacle. At the time, I assumed it was just egos and incompetence, but now it seems to make more sense. Narcissism would also explain the behavior reported by Jack Rawlinson.

  • Jim

    Here’s my two cents:

    I think that with the forum closing Josh made himself some powerful enemies. I think those enemies have been digging hard to find something wrong with the guy. I think that someone has been whispering into the ear of the RDF and finally found something to make them react – true or not.

  • Demonhype

    I don’t get the next-to-last post on Chris Ho Stuart’s link about the death of the forums. How on earth did Josh ‘n’ friends “do what they had to” or “choose the lesser of two evils”? No case is made, so I guess we will never know how the lesser of two evils involved ignoring/avoiding crucial input from the mods and members, ditching the open forum format in favor of a highly censored comment section, making strangely self-important threats to anyone who dares to extend their contacts with friends outside of “the circle” or opposes him in any way, and then deleting huge sections of the community and culture once it became apparant that the natives weren’t just going to bow obediently to his arbitrary whims.

    Admittedly, I was not there. But from the rather detailed account on that link, it sounds like Josh is, indeed, a malignant narcissist or some kind of sociopath. It sounds like he regarded himself Holy Father Josh the Most Holy Leader of the RDF Forums, whose Word and Command Shall Not Be Defied. Much like Soviet Communism, which was so much like religion without the magic invisible man living in the sky part.

    And now this shit.

    I have to say that what I have learned here is this: As unlikely as it is, should I ever find myself in the position of being publicly notable or outright famous, I should never be too busy to at least check into the websites/stores/etc. being run in my name. Even if they are being run by “trusted lieutenants”. I’d never take their word for it, and if I found out my “trusted lieutenants” were telling my forum following not to contact me with complaints “or else”….well, they wouldn’t be my “trusted lieutenants” anymore, now would they?

  • palebluemote

    Point of clarification: It does say “perhaps the world’s best known and most respected atheist.” Technically, that’s self-referencing speculation, not a declaration of fact (not that I think anyone would seriously argue against it).

  • Ben Finney

    There were dozens of comments at Timonen’s article, but they’ve all been removed and comments are now disabled.

    It’s not too surprising, and probably the advice of his legal representation. But that does make the article kind of pointless; it is defiant and self-righteous, but does not deny any of the specifics.

    Here’s hoping this issue is cleared up quickly, and good stewardship of the RDF sites can be ensured.

  • stogoe

    Man, that Timonen seems to have crossed the line from regular old melodramatic villainy to cartoonish super-villainy.

  • Ben Finney

    There is now A Statement From RDFRS Counsel, Blaine Greenberg, Esq. published at RDFRS giving more information about this issue.

    It’s good; it addresses a number of details and false speculations made in the midst of the online discussion about this.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @JD: This scandal notwithstanding, it strikes me as naive to think that the Dawkins forum closing was Timonen’s doing. Surely he was just the messenger boy, delivering the news about what the board of trustees of the foundation had decided – that a forum wasn’t really promoting the goals of the foundation and so should be replaced with something that does.

    Anyone saying that the forum closing is evidence of Timonen’s psychopathy needs a reality check. These nonprofits are just like any business – they heartlessly fire veteran employees and hire replacements so that they can pay the replacements less money than the veterans. Typical business practice, like sending jobs overseas for cheap labor. Nonprofits are not immune to this; they are modeled on it. Just look at the amount of turnover in their staff from one year to the next.

    If nonprofits are all too happy to boot their own workhorses so they can pay new ones less money, how much do you think they really care about ‘the online community’ that freeloads off of their site and doesn’t really do any work toward their goals? Reality check complete.

  • Ben Finney

    > If nonprofits are all too happy to boot their own workhorses so they can pay new ones less money

    You’re aware that the lawsuit is not about overpaying, right? It’s about embezzlement. You might want to research the difference before spouting disingenuous nonsense.

  • All I can say, on reading some of these comments, is as ERV says, just read the f”’ing complaint, just read it in its entirety. All 18 pages of it. Don’t be so uncritical and slack and judgemental with no evidence.

    Jack Rawlinson – hiya! I was not at the 2007 Convention. I didn’t know Timonen was behaving like a prick there.

    I do know that scientists are full of trust until that trust is discovered to be misplaced. Then there will be no quarter. Just imagine what it took for RD to take this potentially expensive litigious step.

    I would probably have put in place reporting criteria from the beginning of the store trading under UBP but I am an old accountant. Dawkins isn’t. Neither is Cornwell.

    For all of you who are making wild statements, read the bloody complaint. It was in April/May this year that Cornwell wanted the financial records from UBP and it was then that suspicions were roused. And it was then that Timonen withdrew ALL contact with RD dot net and the store that had operated under his name.

    The Trustees would have to have had an accountant go through the QuickBooks accounting records and even then they would have to have found primary documentation of embezzlement BEFORE engaging in litigation. There must be a fairly good case to warrant this action.

    That is not a decision taken lightly. Believe me. RD and RDFRS are looking down the barrel of thousands of legal fees.

    Unless the lawyer can make a king hit that demolishes Timonen and Norton et al.

    And I have to say, please stop conflating last year’s forum problems with this issue.

    There appears to be a fairly decent case for Timonen and Norton to answer.

    What is so awful is the general damage this sort of thing does to any movement/group etc. It is not so different from what happens in other charities, religious sects, retail businesses, solicitors’ firms etc, etc. It is just such a piss off here in atheist land. We didn’t need this.

    My guess is that Timonen, while not naive, was what is commonly known as c*** struck and having made his bed continued to lie in it long after he should have arisen.

    Silly young git.

  • JD

    This scandal notwithstanding, it strikes me as naive to think that the Dawkins forum closing was Timonen’s doing.

    I suppose so, but isn’t the poor execution and poor communication of it at least partly his fault? The number of stories of it being orderly, well communicated and well executed, heck, just doesn’t exist, it was a total fiasco, even Dawkins himself seemed to admit that part.

    You must have been channeling someone else about the sociopath part, I didn’t say that.

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