The news that HuffingtonPost.com will get a $1.75M grant for investigative journalism will cause great surprise among many observers of The Atlantic Philanthropies, the nonprofit foundation making the contribution.
Atlantic tried but failed to set up a similar organization in Ireland in 2005. The experience was so searing that Atlantic founder and sole benefactor Chuck Feeney (see related article) stated in an interview “we certainly won’t venture into that area again.”
At the time, Feeeney, who has deep roots in Ireland, was troubled by the simmering property and especially the political scandals that no one could report on because of restrictive libel laws.
His instincts were right. Now, as the "Celtic Tiger" economy weakens, many of the same scandals that Feeney sensed and saw have come out into public view.
Back then, he teamed up with investigative reporter Frank Connolly to start the Center for Public Inquiry, with a mandate to investigate many of the creeping scandals.
A $5 million budget for five years was set up for the center, and Connolly, one of Ireland’s best-known and skillful reporters, ,began the task of unearthing the corruption he felt was at the heart of Irish political and business life.
He certainly knew the turf. Back in the mid 1990s, he had unearthed the first great property-planning corruption scandal that resulted in the resignation and later jailing of Ray Burke, who had been a senior minister in several Irish governments.
But Connolly had a controversial past himself. A newspaper alleged he had direct IRA links and that he had traveled to Colombia under a false passport in 2001.
Colombia was where three Sinn Fein members had been held, including Conolly’s brother Niall, on grounds they had aided and helped arm the guerilla fighters in FARC in their battle against the Colombian government.
The Irish government went to town on Connolly, clearly spooked by the notion that their dealings were about to be laid bare by a journalist who was clearly in the mood and had the money to take them on.
Justice Minister Michael McDowell was particularly incensed. He took the remarkable step of leaking a secret police document to a well-known journalist who wrote that the Irish police had definitely identified Connolly as a person who had traveled to Colombia on a false passport.
Connolly was caught in a vise, as was Feeney. If the head of the Center for Public Inquiry could not establish his own credibility, then how could he honestly head up a watchdog group? Connolly denied he had traveled to Colombia, but was never in a position to prove otherwise.
After a scorching period and screaming newspaper headlines, Connolly resigned and the center was closed. Feeney took the closure hard, as he had been close to Connolly and they both believed passionately in good government.
The experience left him and his Atlantic Philanthropies with a very bad taste, which makes his new involvement with HuffingtonPost.com all the more surprising. No doubt, Feeney hopes the widely-read website will not suffer any similar meltdown.