In May, The Huffington Post announced that 29-year-old managing editor Jimmy Soni would step down to focus on launching the progressive website’s India edition in New Delhi. As of last month, however, he was no longer employed by the company. What happened?
A Huffington Post spokesperson recently told Capital New York that Soni had left the site to write a book about the mathematician Claude Shannon and consult for his former employer on the side. But two current HuffPost staffers and six former ones tell us a very different story: Prior to his sudden departure, Soni found himself under investigation by lawyers from HuffPost’s corporate parent AOL for sexually harassing young female employees.
Rumors concerning Soni’s behavior toward staffers have been traded among media circles since he came onboard the site in early 2012. His impressive résumé—Duke, McKinsey, a stint as Arianna Huffington’s “chief of staff”—only accelerated their spread.
Those rumors gained new traction when, in April of this year, AOL lawyers began arranging interviews with employees in New York City, according to several staffers with knowledge of the inquiry. The topic of discussion: Whether they had seen Soni display inappropriate and sometimes harassing behavior toward certain female staffers.
The focus of the investigation was Soni’s management of HuffPost’s Editorial Fellows program, which he allegedly treated as a continually-replenished pool of potential romantic partners. Soni apparently bragged about his intentions quite openly. One former staffer personally witnessed an exchange between Soni and several other editors after one of them pointed out that the latest class of fellows, which had been hand-picked by Soni, was made up of disproportionately white, blonde women.
“Yeah,” Soni semi-jokingly responded, “I’m using it to find myself a wife.”
Nobody we spoke with alleged that Soni had offered promotions or raises in exchange for sexual favors. Still, he was known to aggressively court female fellows. Staffers claimed that several fellows received inappropriate Facebook messages and odd phone calls from Soni during and after work hours, asking when they could get together. (A former staffer described such conduct as “classic sexual harassment.”)
The matter evidently came to management’s attention in early April when two fellows, who had not dated or slept with Soni (but were friends with fellows who had), approached their section editor about Soni’s entreaties. He had created an atmosphere, they said, in which many felt that if they didn’t flirt with Soni, their chances of landing a full-time position would suffer. The section editor notified higher-ups, triggering an investigation.
The site may have been motivated by external scrutiny, too. AOL’s investigation roughly coincided with inquiries from Capital New York, which published a long, less-than-flattering profile of the Huffington Post’s editorial leadership in early May. To the frustration of several HuffPost staffers, Capital didn’t detail any specific allegations against Soni—only that he was “a divisive figure, having clashed with senior figures in the newsroom,” and was perceived as “imperious and arrogant, albeit hard-working and devoted to the site.” (We’re told that Capital was aware of the allegations but was unable to identify the fellows who were involved.)
It’s unclear how the AOL probe ultimately turned out. Yet two weeks after Capital’s profile appeared, by which time word of an investigation had spread throughout HuffPost’s newsroom, Huffington announced in a staff-wide memo that Soni was being transferred to New Delhi. Current and former staffers say the move was seen as an obvious attempt to remove Soni from the situation in New York and to distance him from the fellows program. A recent Capital New York item appears to support this interpretation:
Numerous current and former employees have told Capital that Soni’s initial change in roles was widely viewed as a demotion brought about in the wake of internal complaints about his management style and his interactions with certain employees.
Within the company, Soni’s transfer was simultaneously seen as a stop-gap, designed to give the company—and Huffington herself—enough time to devise a plausible story for his inevitable, and permanent, exit. Which would, indeed, appear to be case. “There’s no plan,” a spokesperson told Capital in August, “for him to return to full-time.”
The Huffington Post declined to address inquiries about the internal investigation into Soni’s behavior. “It’s our policy never to discuss personnel matters,” spokesperson Lena Auerbuch wrote in an email to Gawker. In a separate email, Arianna Huffington wrote: “I have to reiterate what Lena said—that we don’t comment on personnel matters.” Jimmy Soni did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Update, 5:00 p.m.: Soni addressed this article in a statement he provided to Gawker:
Keenan — Saw your article. I chose to leave Huffpost in order to finish writing a book I have under contract with Simon and Schuster. The book has been in the works for several months, as have my plans to leave. As the managing editor for over two years and with a long track record of success, I accomplished what I set out to accomplish there, am still close with many of the team members who made this possible, and won’t comment on unsubstantiated rumors.