According to some members, Karnath has been guarded about the club’s finances, and there are whispers that she may have inflated her accomplishments. Bernstein is dubious about Karnath’s claim to have boosted club membership. In January, he told me that Karnath had not been removing members who weren’t paying dues or who had passed away. The rolls, in other words, were stocked with deadbeats and the dead.
Karnath disputes this and says she’s led the effort to cleanse the rolls while increasing the number of actual, paying members. Blumenfeld backs her up. “Lorie launched a campaign to call each member, and as a result, 290 inactive members were eliminated,” he pointed out in an e-mail. He also noted that member dues have increased under Karnath’s tenure, from $776,112 in 2009 to $819,435 in 2011.
Then there are the fundraising claims. “By our calculations, the president has raised perhaps $562,000,” says Bernstein. “Karnath says it was $1 million to $1.2 million. Our repeated requests to be given a detailed breakdown of this amount have so far been ignored.”
The club is a tax-exempt nonprofit with publicly available records. According to filings, the organization’s income has varied widely in recent years, from more than $2 million in 2007 to just over $1 million in 2008—and $1.8 million in 2009, Karnath’s first year as president. But the records don’t show where every dollar goes. One concern voiced by Karnath’s critics involves a $300,000 donation made in 2008 by a now deceased club member. The money was pledged under Karnath’s predecessor, Dan Bennett, and after Karnath took office it was transferred to a building-renovation fund. Karnath’s critics complain that the president has since taken credit for raising all of the money in that fund. Her defense: while the $300,000 was promised under Bennett, it arrived during her tenure, and she merely allocated it to a pressing cause. The club’s treasurer, Mark Kassner, backs her, saying the board approved the transfer of the donation. “Any suggestion of impropriety,” Kassner says, “is part of an unsubstantiated smear campaign.”
SO WHICH IS IT? Is Karnath a vindictive dictator or the target of a petty witch hunt by a hopelessly dated rebel alliance? One thing’s certain: this isn’t the first time her management style has caused a stir. In 2004, Karnath was hired to shore up the finances of the Dahlem Conference, a prestigious scientific gathering in Berlin launched during the cold war. Sponsored by the Free University of Berlin, the Dahlem Conference was held several times a year and featured top scientists discussing heady topics, like the “Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation.” As the new century dawned, though, the organization found itself on shaky financial ground, and it brought in several German entrepreneurs and businesspeople, including Karnath, to secure funding. Within a year, the organization had imploded.
According to Randolf Menzel, a neurobiologist and former chairman of Dahlem’s 12-member scientific advisory board, the university appointed Karnath to the board without its consent. The committee, which included a Nobel laureate and two Guggenheim fellows, was outraged by the intrusion, especially when Karnath proposed her own idea for a workshop. Program director Julia Lupp, who declined to comment, objected that Karnath was out of bounds. Soon after, the university removed Lupp from the board, and rumors began to swirl that Karnath was involved with her ouster.
“Karnath saw Julia as an impediment to whatever her plans were,” says Norbert Baer, a research professor at New York University who also served on Dahlem’s board. Karnath denies having anything to do with Lupp’s departure, and Wedigo de Vivanco, the Free University’s dean of international affairs, supports her claim, calling Karnath’s role in the incident “coincidence” and saying that Lupp was removed as part of a larger upheaval. In any case, Lupp’s firing provoked fury: 10 of the 12 scientific committee’s members threatened to resign, and the university was inundated with letters of protest from scientists around the world. Following an investigation, Lupp was cleared of wrongdoing and reappointed. Karnath left the university after the conference was restructured. Asked about Dahlem, Karnath said, “The university wanted it to change. That’s what I do. I go in and make change and move things forward.”
In person, Karnath doesn’t come off as mendacious. She was friendly when we met at club headquarters in January, a time when the infighting had reached absurd levels. Clash and Kamler—two of Bernstein’s cohorts on the board of directors—were under review by the ethics committee for speaking to the Post. I’d become something of a sounding board for the fight, my inbox filled with vitriolic e-mail from both sides. At one point I received an envelope containing internal club documents, with a return address bearing the name John Drake—the secret agent in the 1960’s British spy show Danger Man. I got the feeling that the anti-Karnath crowd was attempting to air its grievances—and possibly force the president’s ouster—through the media.