Ex-WSJ reporter says he was framed in elaborate 'hack-and-smear' operation

Wild story of a multinational law firm, cyber-mercenaries, a sheikh, and more

A former Wall Street Journal reporter has sued a multinational law firm, some of its attorneys, and others for allegedly stealing his emails and spreading the messages to wrongly discredit him, leading to his firing.

In court documents, Jay Solomon, who was the newspaper's chief foreign affairs correspondent until he was axed in 2017, accused [PDF] 11 defendants including Philadelphia-based law firm Dechert of costing him his job and damaging his reputation.

They did this, in part, by paying Indian hack-for-hire firms Cyber Defense, BellTrox, and CyberRoot to break into the email account of Farhad Azima – one of Solomon's sources – to obtain private communications between the two men, it was claimed. These messages were then leaked to give the false impression the pair were together conducting a shady business deal, it was alleged.

This underhand smear, that Solomon was being financially rewarded by a source, ultimately convinced the journalist's editors to sack him, it was claimed.

Solomon's complaint was filed in a Washington DC federal court on Friday. Azima, an aviation tycoon, also sued the same 11 defendants last week [PDF] in a New York City federal court. 

The leaked emails, according to Solomon's lawsuit, "presented suggestive language creating a wrongful appearance of alleged improper, unethical and/or fraudulent dealings between Mr Solomon and Mr Azima that never occurred."

Dechert denied any wrongdoing: a spokesperson told The Register, "the claim against the firm is denied and will be defended."

Becoming a 'person of concern'

Solomon spent almost two decades covering foreign affairs for the WSJ. In 2013, he wrote a front-page story that, we're told, blew the lid off a significant money-laundering operation in which three Iranian businessmen would use government cash to purchase assets for Tehran to help Iran avoid US sanctions. Those three executives were recruited and dispatched overseas by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it was reported. Azima was one of Solomon's sources for this article, which according to the 80-page lawsuit resulted in "swift" fallout once published.

For one, Georgia ceased its visa-free policy for Iranian nationals in July that year, and froze 150 Iranian bank accounts in the country, Solomon's complaint stated. As a result of Solomon's reporting, it allegedly put him in the cross-hairs of Sheikh Mohammed bin Saud bin Saqr Al Qasim, the ruler of the Middle East emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. It was claimed that the Georgian crackdown prevented the Iranian businessmen from buying assets – such as a hotel in Georgia – from the royal for the Revolutionary Guard without drawing the Americans' ire.

"Sheikh Saud was unable to sell his assets to the three IRGC moneymen, who were in the middle of literally the largest Iranian money laundering operations in the world," the complaint stated. "Sheikh Saud could have been penalized by the US for sanctions violations. Mr Solomon believes that unbeknownst to him he became a person of concern to the ruler at or around this time."

According to Solomon's lawsuit, Azima was a friend of Sheikh Saud and acted as a middleman in the Iranian transactions, though the royal later grew suspicious and feared the business magnate was conspiring with others to unseat him.

In 2014, Sheikh Saud hired Dechert to investigate claims of fraud against Rakia, Ras Al Khaimah's investment agency. However, this "ethical legal services engagement" soon devolved, according to Solomon's court documents, and eventually included the alleged illegal hack-for-hire that led to Solomon's downfall.

After hiring the Indian firms to break into Azima's email account, the defendants leaked the emails to the journalist's employer, it was claimed. In 2016, the Washington DC bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal called Solomon in to meet Dow Jones' lawyers. WSJ is a division of Dow Jones, and Dow Jones News Corp is also a Dechert client, according to the lawsuit. 

The court documents detail what allegedly went down at that meeting:

Dow Jones attorney Craig Linder presented Mr Solomon with some of the hacked and stolen correspondence between him and Mr Azima. Mr Linder specifically mentioned a company called Denx that Mr Azima was establishing and wanted to know if Mr Solomon had joined the company. [Solomon] said he would never join a company with Mr Azima, as Mr Azima was his source.

Then, in June 2017, Solomon got a call from an Associated Press reporter who seemed to have the same email communications between Solomon and Azima, according to the lawsuit. These documents appeared to show Azima offering Solomon a 10 percent stake in Denx. Essentially, Solomon was being accused of getting too close to a key source's business activities.

Solomon denied he had any dealings or agreements with Denx. The AP published its investigation, and in July that year the Wall Street Journal fired Solomon. "We have concluded that Mr Solomon violated his ethical obligations as a reporter, as well as our standards," the publication said at the time.

After the newspaperman's termination, the AP noted: "It was not clear whether Solomon ever received money or formally accepted a stake" in Denx. Solomon continued to insist he had no and had taken no stake in the company.

At the time of his firing, the journalist told AP: "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."

In addition to costing him his job, the alleged "hack-and-smear operation" also wrecked Solomon's reputation and prevented him from securing any other investigative reporter gigs, his lawsuit stated. 

"In addition, this criminal and racketeering activity effectively caused Mr Solomon to be blackballed by the journalistic and publishing community in Washington, New York and elsewhere and further caused damage to his business and property by devaluing Mr Solomon's existing book publishing contracts as the market value of the books he publishes are inextricability intertwined with his employment status and reputation as a journalist," the court documents read.

The scribe is thus seeking compensatory and punitive damages. ®

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