For the last several weeks -- maybe longer -- the NYT has been involved in an expensive relationship with a group of very high-priced models.
The man supplying these models to the newspaper of record has a past history that includes accusations of sexual harassment and financial improprieties.
None of this has been disclosed by the NYT. Quite the opposite, in fact: the NYT expects its readers to support this alliance -- and even pay dearly for it.
The models in question are patent models -- tiny replicas of devices invented in the 19th century, made as part of patent applications to show what the invention would look like. They're "one of a kind" -- or as the NYT puts it, "only 'one' available."
They're for sale in NYT Store, ranging in price from $325 (for an 1876 belt-coupling) t0 $2595 (for an 1879 underground telegraph).
Usually the NYT Store sells NYT replica front pages, or Barack Obama coffee mugs. These represent true historical artifacts and once belonged to private collectors.
The store's promotional material explains that the items are "made available by the U.S. Patent Model Foundation, exclusively through The Times."
How do patent model experts feel about this?
"Frankly, I was very shocked when I found out that the NYT was promoting the sale of these models," Alan Rothschild, one of the nation's foremost collectors of patent models, and owner of Rothschild-Petersen Patent Model Museum in Syracuse, told The NYTPicker via email.
That's because the "U. S. Patent Model Foundation" --as official as it sounds -- has a shady past.
What especially troubles Rothschild -- and what bothers most people in the business when the subject of the U.S. Patent Model Foundation comes up -- involves a man named Jerry Greene.
Greene (who goes professionally by the more formal "J. Morgan Greene") has been involved with the foundation since the 1980s, when it launched a popular "Invent America" program designed to reward teenage techies.
In April of 1993, a report on ABC's 20/20 detailed numerous charges against Greene and the Foundation. The 20/20 piece included accusations of sexual harassment against Greene by six former female employees.
"There was daily, hourly screaming and yelling for reasons I couldn't figure out," Greene's former assistant, Laura Bakin, said in a complaint against her former boss, as reported in the Washington Post on April 17, 1993. "...And he would come up to me and put his face up to my ear and say, 'If you want to turn me on, you can type this for me.'"
The story went on to recount financial allegations against Greene's Patent Model Foundation, reporting that they were at times months late delivering the cash rewards -- disappointing the teenagers who had won its invention competition.
On top of that, the Post reported, the Foundation had just gotten evicted from its office for failure to pay rent.
Sounds like a great partner for the NYT to be in business with, selling toys at inflated prices -- almost like out of the back of a pickup truck.
Nowhere in the NYT advertising for the Patent Store -- and that includes a full-page house ad for the models that ran on the back of Science Times last Tuesday -- does it explain anything about its relationship with the Foundation.
These "models" make for an odd item for sale in what the NYT now freely calls the "Great Recession," in any case. The jewelry the NYT sells is in the $50 to $150 range, and most of its books and souvenirs don't approach the four-figure mark.
But what makes this especially weird is that the NYT is making a point of partnering with a man like Jerry Greene.
In 1989, Greene got Cliff Petersen -- a rich California patent-model collector -- to give 30,000 patent models and $1 million to his new "U.S. Patent Model Foundation."
Petersen gave the models to the foundation because it was "a nonprofit organization whose goal was to to set up a museum," the NYT reported.
It never happened.
Instead, by 1993 Greene had become the focus of the investigation aired on ABC's 20/20. That report detailed allegations of poor accounting practices, late payments of prizes in its "Invent America" competition -- and, of course, interviews with the numerous women who accused Greene of sexual harassment.
Greene denied the harassment charges at the time.
But in March of 1995, The Alexandria, Virginia Human Rights Commission ruled that Greene had harassed three female employees, and owed a total of $17,847 in damages.
The commission cited Greene's "inappropriate and highly offensive remarks" that included "unwelcomed touching" and "leering," according to a March 8, 1995 account in the Washington Post.
The "Invent America" program is no longer in operation. K Mart had withdrawn its sponsorship in the wake of the 20/20 investigation of Greene, according to a report in Education Week. It never revived its original media luster.
In 1997, Cliff Petersen sued to get his models back, according to Forbes Magazine. Greene countersued. Forbes reported that the results were sealed -- but that Greene was "happy with the results."
And why not? Petersen's donation helped Greene grow the Foundation into a thriving nonprofit. By 2001, Greene was pulling in a $120,000 annual salary for himself.
Greene's success would appear to derive in part from his latest endeavor: selling patent models on eBay, and at antique shows.
Forbes reported on Greene's new hobbies in December of 2006, and said Greene "claims he sells lesser pieces to help fund the foundation."
On eBay, the description of the U.S. Patent Model Foundation says it "hopes to place its collections" in museums. Whatever's left over from the sale, that is.
"He says 100 percent of his sales go to the foundation," James Davie, a patent-model collector, told Forbes, "but I'm not so sure."
Greene's response? "If anyone could do a better job with these," he said, "be my guest."
Well, fortunately for Greene, he's now got the NYT on the job.
Greene wasn't reachable for comment on this story; we'll update as soon as we hear from him.
We emailed a list of questions to Diane McNulty, the NYT's spokeswoman, early this afternoon. Still no response.