Updated April 8, 2021 - 9:55 am
A Las Vegas news anchor has demanded $20 million and more from an international charity that he has accused of defrauding him.
And if the organization doesn’t agree, it will reach “additional heights of public infamy,” according to the demand letter signed by the Las Vegas law firm Reid Rubinstein & Bogatz.
The demands were spurred by a conflict between KSNV-TV, Channel 3 reporter and anchor Reed Cowan and the Toronto-based WE Charity, which built two schoolhouses under his late son’s name.
But on Dec. 28, after Bloomberg Businessweek published a story that raised ethical questions about WE Charity, “Mr. Cowan’s reputation, livelihood and sacred place were destroyed,” the letter said.
In a response letter, the charity’s attorneys wrote, “If WE Charity refuses to pay Mr. Cowan nearly a thousand times what he donated, your letter states that he will use his position and connections as a journalist to smear the charity with negative publicity in the United States.”
Cowan, who works for the local Sinclair-owned NBC station, said in an email to the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Wednesday, “Sinclair has nothing to do with my right as a citizen to report wrongs, and seek legal reparation.”
But the case “cruises some ethical lines” and breaches standards set by the Society of Professional Journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” said Mary Hausch, a former Review-Journal managing editor and UNLV professor who specialized in media ethics.
“I understand him wanting to commemorate his child, but not involving his role as a journalist in doing it,” she said.
Son’s accidental death
In Cowan’s email, he said he felt forced to hire an attorney after being stonewalled by the charity and claimed that the demand letter was made public in an effort to harm him “for just trying to do the right thing on behalf of good people who gave money fifteen years ago in the wake of the greatest tragedy” of his life.
In April 2006, Cowan’s 4-year-old son, Wesley, died in a swing set accident. In the midst of his grief, Cowan learned of WE Charity, founded by Craig and Marc Kielburger, through the “Oprah Winfrey Show.”
The episode detailed their mission to build schools in Kenya, and Cowan decided to raise funds for the project “as a way of turning pain into purpose,” according to the demand letter. He spent the next two years traveling to Kenya to commemorate the school construction in Wesley’s name and film a documentary of the project.
Years later, the Bloomberg Businessweek story reported that “a running joke among staff was that donor plaques hanging on buildings should be made of Velcro because they were swapped so frequently.”
The story came months after the charity announced it was closing Canadian operations.
The organization did remove Wesley’s plaque from a Kenyan school and replaced it with one dedicated to another person. His name was later restored to the school.
“Mr. Cowan does not view that building as simply a school. That building is the place where his son is,” said the letter, signed March 26.
It asks for $250,000 in donations to be returned, reimbursement for the documentary and expenses for traveling to Kenya. It also demands $20 million in compensation for the “destruction of his character and marketability as a journalist, public speaker, filmmaker and author.” In addition, it asks that both plaques with Wesley’s name be removed, or the charity pay another $20 million in damages.
The stated basis for the damages is that Cowan spent 15 years “preaching” about how he overcame the grief of losing his son through WE Charity, which the demand letter claimed “is now publicly known to be based on lies.”
If the demands are accepted, Cowan will willingly delete social media posts on the topic and decline media interviews with outlets, such as “Dateline NBC, CBS News, Sinclair Broadcasting, Nex[s]tar Broadcasting, CBC, and all print interviews with Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Post and Bloomberg, and any other press outlet who requests interviews,” the letter sent on behalf of Cowan said.
The response letter, which was signed April 1 by Joseph F. Kroetsch of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, said: “Your letter is extortion, not a settlement discussion.”
That letter argued that WE used the funds raised by Cowan for their intended purposes; that there is no legal basis for the claims of fraud made by Cowan; that WE did remove a plaque and apologized to Cowan; and that the $20 million sought is not “random,” as WE’s recent financial records show “approximately $20 million in net assets.”
WE’s response letter expressed that even if the charity wanted to give in to the demands, it could not, as it has a responsibility to thousands of children across the world.
“We cannot claim to fully understand the emotional importance to Mr. Cowan of placing a plaque in his son’s memory on a school he helped build in Kenya,” the letter stated. “But that school is still there. The good Mr. Cowan set out to do in his son’s name is being done.”