Was it an act of altruism or a scam?
That's the big question behind media executive Darlene Tipton's efforts to raise money for the family and girlfriend of Philip Wood, a passenger who was on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Tipton, a vice president at Fox Cable Networks, was fired April 9 after using her work email to contact Wood's girlfriend, Sarah Bajc. The cable executive said in the email that she wanted to discuss a plan to raise $22 million for Bajc and Wood's family via the website GoFundMe.
Bajc said she was taken aback by the email and found it “egregious” and initially didn't believe it could have come from a Fox executive.
After some further correspondence in which Tipton said she also may have knowledge about what happened to the flight, Bajc said she alerted the FBI and executives at Fox News. The emails were forwarded from Fox News to the Fox Cable Networks unit.
Tipton was subsequently escorted off the Century City lot. An executive also went to her house in an attempt to retrieve her personal computer. She was fired the following day.
A Fox Cable Networks spokesman said Tipton was fired because her actions were not approved and violated company policy. News of Tipton's fundraising efforts and firing was first reported by the aviation blog Flying Lessons.
On Monday, GoFundMe took down Tipton's page, telling her in an email that she needed to provide “evidence that the family of Philip Wood has approved for you to do this fundraiser.”
A GoFundMe spokesman declined to comment further.
Tipton was a vice president of standards and practices for the unit of 21st Century Fox and a 24 year-veteran of the company. She said that the effort was not a hoax but rather a genuine gesture of goodwill, and that her family would not make any money from this.
“My heart just went out to the families of these people,” Tipton said. “I don't understand why everyone looks for an ulterior motive when you're just trying to do a good thing.”
Citing her own long-running legal battle with a former business manager, Tipton said it would take years for people to get any financial compensation from the airline or the plane's manufacturer.
In the note on her GoFundMe page, Tipton wrote that the goal was to raise $22 million in 30 days that would then be offered to a legal representative for Wood's family. If that offer was refused, the funds would be made available to other Flight 370 families.
Of that, $2 million would cover the costs of raising the money through the website.
Participants would also have to waive any other legal claims regarding the flight. Tipton said she did that so no one would try to get compensated multiple times. She added that she believes that the plane was hijacked and that “neither the airplane manufacturer or the airline was to blame.”
As for using her Fox email account to attempt to correspond with Bajc, Tipton said she did so to establish her legitimacy.
“I never said this was through Fox or that this was a Fox project,” she said, adding that she wanted to show that she wasn't “some crackpot off the street.”
In an email to Bajc, Tipton also said her husband, Ken, believed he had knowledge of what happened to the flight. He posted a video on YouTube from a recent hospital stay where he said he “hallucinated that I was with Malaysia Flight #370.”
In the video from his hospital bed, Tipton never actually disclosed what he thinks the fate of the flight was.
“I believe I know what happened. It had nothing to do with what Darlene was doing,” he said. He declined to elaborate on his theory in a phone interview.
Asked whether the combination of the unsolicited fundraising and Ken Tipton’s musing might have played a part in making Bajc dubious, Tipton said she didn’t see it that way.
“It's Ken telling the story of hallucinations,” she said.
Bajc said the video was a “very sick guy laying in bed speaking in a random, illogical, hallucinatory way.”
Ken Tipton gained some notoriety almost two decades ago for his part in the “Our First Time” Internet hoax in which a couple were going to have sex for the first time on the Internet. It turned out to be scripted, and there was no payoff.
“What I did in 1998 has absolutely nothing to do with what Darlene's trying to do,” he said.
Calling the firing an overreaction, Tipton said this was really a way for Fox to get rid of a high-paid executive. She said there is an “unwritten policy” at Fox that encourages executives to remove people before they turn 55.
Tipton, 61, said that if executives “make it to 55, then Fox must continue their corporate benefits until age 65 unless they break any rule.” She said she had been fired on her 54th birthday in 2006 but then was rehired the next day by John Landgraf, chief executive of the FX network. She said she is considering legal action against Fox for age discrimination.
The Fox spokesman countered that “despite her claims, age had nothing to do with Ms. Tipton’s termination. She was terminated for conduct and communication that was a clear violation of company policy.”
Bajc said that there was “no possible way” for her to know if the Tiptons intentions were “positive or nefarious” but that the execution was “bumbling and terribly inappropriate.”
Since the plane went missing, there have been a number of similar “charitable” efforts and odd requests by others, she said.
“They are not the only ones,” Bajc said, but “they are the kookiest.”
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.