The Greatest Alibi Ever Told

March 29, 2006


This one comes in from the fresh coast:

Dear AP,

Is it unethical for a nonprofit organization that serves women and children to pursue a donation from the Robert Blake Foundation, rumored to be a tax shelter set up by the celebrity recently acquitted of murdering his wife? Does it make a difference if the organization is in Los Angeles?


Not a Hypothetical Questioner


A little background first:

Robert Blake, the star actor of 70s television detective series Baretta (he also made it in some movie called The Greatest Story Ever Told, but most likely not that great), was charged in 2002 for murdering his wife (who was herself on her ninth and last — marriage) in 2001 outside an Italian restaurant in Studio City while, so claims Robert Blake, he was retrieving his gun he left in the restaurant. They should make a movie out of that and call it The Greatest Alibi Ever Told. About a year ago he was acquitted of all criminal charges but then was brought back to court shortly after by a civil charge brought by his dead ex-wife's four children for the wrongful death of their mother. This time he was found guilty and ordered to pay $30 million in restitution. Only a couple weeks ago Robert Blake filed for bankruptcy but the prosecution claims to have documents verifying that Blake has some $20 million in assets stashed away and unaccounted for. It is this Robert Blake Foundation that may be acting as a front for the rumored $20 mill.

Now onto NaHQ'a question. I assume your organization has no special knowledge beyond the man on the street and certainly less than any person involved in the civil case. From that stance of ignorance you can ethically accept money from someone who may or may not be withholding funds due by court mandate. The Foundation is only rumored to be hiding something instead of it being an established fact. Your organization's job is not to be detectives and so there is no onus to investigate the source of its donations. Nor is it expected to hold off on money that possibly could have touched dirty hands several transactions back; because of its fluidity, most money has.

However, there are two possible harms that could result from your organization pursuing money from the Robert Blake Foundation. Whether the foundation is discovered to be dubious or not, its character is already tainted in the public imagination and that taint could bleed over into your organization and hurt its mission in the future. You have to ask yourself how you view other organizations sponsored by the Blake Foundation. Would you never donate money or volunteer your time with them? Or, if you are extraordinarily forgiving, ask what the average person who would help, in some capacity, one of these organizations think. I imagine you'll find that people would think it slightly distasteful but nothing too base to change their over-all opinion. And no one said ethics had to be clean and elegant (except Kant who was an asshole on these sorts of things).


The second harm could directly violate your organization's mission — to help women and children. What kind of lifestyle do the children of Bonnie Lee Bakley (Blake's murdered wife) lead? A lavish one? Or an impoverished one? Do they need the money more than the people you serve do? I'm pretty certain the lawyers and the plaintiffs could do without a good many thousand (probably even a few million) dollars and hardly notice. If they are in fact just as philanthropic as your organization then they get the slight lead considering the money was civil restitution for their mother's death and what they do with that money, although perhaps skewed in a different direction, should result in relatively the same amount of good. It's like donating to Medicine sans Frontiers or the Humane Society — what's the diff?

Unable, though, to know if the money is tainted you should go ahead and pursue some donations no matter if Bonnie's kids are better people than their step-father. There are just too many unknowns to account for and, NaHQ, you've got other work to do.

Sincerely, Michael "the ethicist" Goldman


One Response to “The Greatest Alibi Ever Told”

  1. Arpit Says:

    Dear Ethicist,

    I have a somewhat similar problem with my wife, only she’s not dead yet. About two years ago, I discovered my wife was cheating on me with marble worker (countertops that sort of thing) which needless to say made my heart a sticky pit of tar. About a year and a half later, I spotted the guy installing a marble fireplace entrance in a house kitty corner from mine, so naturally I watched out my bedroom window with binoculars. Then it happened. In the kitchen standing up. I couldn’t believe it. This woman, lets call her Anne, had always seemed so honest and faithful. I am close friends with her husband.

    So can we both beat the shit out of this guy and not feel guilty about it?

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