Former Enron guy Herbert Winokur steps down from board of ‘CJR,’ and ends his funding of its business-media blog, ‘The Audit’

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Winokur (right); a copy of a recent 'CJR.' ()
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Herbert "Pug" Winokur, the former Enron board member and finance committee chairman when the company was destroyed by an accounting-fraud scandal in 2001, has stepped down from the board of the Columbia Journalism Review and is no longer funding its most highly-trafficked web vertical, The Audit, which he helped create, Capital has learned.

Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, which publishes the magazine, confirmed Winokur's exit, but declined to comment on the reasons for it. Winokur, who is one of the principals in Capricorn Holdings, an investment firm, did not respond to a request for comment.

"We have hundreds of donors, and anybody who comes in and provides support for a project is almost certain not to be involved in it forevever," said Lemann, noting Winokur was one of about a dozen donors that bankroll The Audit's full-time editorial staff of two. "That's just the way philanthropy is. I hope one day he'll return."

Winokur's involvement in The Audit, which debuted in 2006 and gained steam the following year when Wall Street Journal veteran Dean Starkman was hired as its editor, has raised eyebrows in the past. Here was a watchdog blog about the business press whose benefactor was, indeed, a high-profile finance figure who'd once been intensely scrutinized by the business press.

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"I can understand Winokur's concern about the 'quality' (i.e., favorableness or lack thereof) of business reporting, considering how much of a shellacking he and the other Enron board members received," wrote the financial journalist Gary Weiss back in 2007. "Many articles covering the scandal ... pointed to the role of Winokur's finance committee in reviewing transactions by Enron's off balance sheet partnerships."

Lemann said Winokur had initially approached the journalism school through a friend who worked there about "setting up a capability to sort of investigate and adjudicate complaints of unfairness against the business press." Lemann and others persuaded him to morph that idea into the online channel that would become The Audit, an ongoing "review of the performance of the business press," said the dean.

"He gets the credit for getting the thing started," said Lemann.

"We're very grateful to Pug," said Victor Navasky, C.J.R.'s chairman and a member of the journalism school's faculty.

"I thank Pug for starting The Audit and for funding it for so long," said Starkman.

The Audit is one of five online "desks" that publish daily at cjr.org. It generates the most traffic of any other area on the site, said Lemann.