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James Beard wrongdoing a possibility, board says

The president of the James Beard Foundation has resigned amid the fallout over accounting irregularities at the charity - while malpractice by a member of the board 'can't be ruled out'.

Leonard Pickell, who had been president since 1996, resigned on Tuesday, the foundation said. Pickell has denied funds were misspent or misplaced, saying the accounting discrepancy was due to ‘bad record keeping and insufficient resources’.

In a further development, the New York Times reports that after an internal review the foundation announced yesterday that it could not rule out the possibility of wrongdoing by a member of its board.

According to a statement, the review ‘showed that certain expenditures of the foundation were not properly substantiated or documented.’

The statement also said the investigation had produced no findings of wrongdoing on the part of the foundation’s paid staff or volunteers but James Haggerty, a spokesman for the foundation, told the New York Times that the review did not make the same conclusion about the board.

The finances of the foundation, a culinary charity supported by some of America’s leading chefs, are under investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office because it has not filed tax returns for two years.

The New York Times has reported hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual revenues are unaccounted for and that foundation’s charitable practices are being questioned. The foundation is non-profit and tax-exempt.

Last year, a stream of gourmet dinners raised US$4.7 million in revenue, but only US$29,000 was spent on culinary scholarships.

Best known overseas for the James Beard Awards – the so-called Oscars of the food world – the foundation was established in 1985 by the late Julia Child and other friends in memory of cook and writer James Beard. Award recipients include restaurants, chefs and writers.

Hundreds of top chefs and restaurateurs including Charlie Trotter and Nobu Matsuhisa have offered their services – often for free – catering dinners at the foundation’s Manhattan headquarters, providing their own ingredients and paying their own travel and lodging costs; producers and wholesalers have provided free wine.

According to foundation officials, about US$1m is spent on the annual awards gala.

There is likely to be a backlash from donors if illegal conduct comes to light.

Decanter contributor and New York Times columnist Howard G Goldberg told decanter.com ‘Because of Beard’s perceived influence over careers, few chefs openly voice scepticism about the payback value of dinners they’ve subsidised. Will the annual awards be tarnished? We’ll see.’

George P Sape, a trustee whom the board has just appointed board chairman, said, ‘The good work of the James Beard Foundation continues. There is no organization in this country that has had a more positive impact in promoting the culinary arts.’

Written by Catherine Woods, and Howard G Goldberg in New York

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