The Wall Street Journal fired its highly regarded chief foreign affairs correspondent on Wednesday after evidence emerged of his involvement in prospective commercial deals – including one involving arms sales to foreign governments – with an international businessman who was one of his key sources.
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The reporter, Jay Solomon, was offered a 10 percent stake in a fledgling company, Denx LLC, by Farhad Azima, an Iranian-born aviation magnate who has ferried weapons for the CIA. It was not clear whether Solomon ever received money or formally accepted a stake in the company.
“We are dismayed by the actions and poor judgment of Jay Solomon,” Wall Street Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus wrote in a statement to The Associated Press. “While our own investigation continues, we have concluded that Mr. Solomon violated his ethical obligations as a reporter, as well as our standards.”
Azima was the subject of an AP investigative article published Tuesday. During the course of its investigation, the AP obtained emails and text messages between Azima and Solomon, as well as an operating agreement for Denx dated March 2015, which listed an apparent stake for Solomon.
As part of its reporting, the AP had asked the Journal about the documents appearing to link Solomon and Azima. The relationship was uncovered in interviews and in internal documents that Azima’s lawyer said were stolen by hackers.
“I clearly made mistakes in my reporting and entered into a world I didn’t understand.” Solomon told the AP on Wednesday. “I never entered into any business with Farhad Azima, nor did I ever intend to. But I understand why the emails and the conversations I had with Mr. Azima may look like I was involved in some seriously troubling activities. I apologize to my bosses and colleagues at the Journal, who were nothing but great to me.”
Two other Denx partners – ex-CIA employees Gary Bernsten and Scott Modell – told the AP that Solomon was involved in discussing proposed deals with Azima at the same time he continued to cultivate the businessman as a source for his stories for the Journal. Bernsten and Modell said Solomon withdrew from the venture shortly after business efforts began and that the venture never added up to much. They provided no evidence as to when Solomon withdrew.
The emails and texts reviewed by the AP – tens of thousands of pages covering more than eight years – included more than 18 months of communications involving the apparent business effort. Some messages described a need for Solomon’s Social Security number to file the company’s taxes, but there was no evidence Solomon provided it.
Denx was shuttered last year, according to Florida business registration records.
In an April 2015 email, Azima wrote to Solomon about a proposal for a $725 million air-operations, surveillance and reconnaissance support contract with the United Arab Emirates that would allow planes to spy on activity inside nearby Iran. Solomon was supposed to ferry the proposal to UAE government representatives at a lunch the following day, the email said.
“We all wish best of luck to Jay on his first defense sale,” Azima wrote to Solomon, Bernsten and Modell.
Under the proposed UAE deal, Azima’s firms were to manage specially equipped surveillance planes to monitor activity in Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
In October 2014, Solomon wrote to Azima in a text message: “Our business opportunities are so promising.”
In another message that same month, Solomon asked Azima whether he had told a mutual friend about their business plans.
“Hell no!” Azima replied.
The emails show Solomon’s relationship with Azima began professionally, as the reporter cultivated the businessman as a source of information about Iranian money in a Georgian hotel deal and other matters. A review of Solomon’s published work over the past four years indicated Azima never appeared by name in the newspaper.
The hacked materials also demonstrate that Azima cultivated close relationships with fellow Western and American journalists, including those at the AP, and frequently communicated with them by phone, text and email. None appeared to involve the same level of personal involvement or referenced potential business deals.
Veteran journalists at prominent outlets such as the Journal have contacts, expertise and influence that can be valuable in the business world, said Kelly McBride, a vice president for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education center based in St. Petersburg, Florida. But seeking to exploit those assets while a journalist would betray readers’ trust in a reporter’s impartiality.
“You can’t have conversations about business deals outside your employment,” she said.
Over decades, Azima has glided among different worlds, flying weapons to the Balkans, selling spy gear to Persian Gulf nations, dealing with a small Midwest bank and navigating Washington’s power circles. In an April 2016 memo, a public relations firm he worked with, Prime Strategies, suggested Solomon could be called upon to “write a feature story about Farhad” to help combat negative coverage.
In May 2015, Bernsten – using an email under the alias “The Vicar” – told Azima of a plan to help a dissident member of the Kuwaiti royal family instigate public protests over corruption with the goal of bringing down the nation’s government. Though the Kuwaiti plan involved Denx, Solomon was not included in the emails and said he knew nothing about it. It does not appear the plans were ever executed, as 87-year-old Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah remains in power.