At 3:08 pm on Wednesday, the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal received a cryptic email from their chief, Paul Beckett.
“Short-Notice staff Meeting at 3:15,” read the subject. The team of 40 was told to gather at their usual spot. “We won’t need chairs,” he added. “It will be short.”
Soon enough, Beckett delivered to the jittery group the news many had half-anticipated: Ace national security reporter Jay Solomon, whose desk had earlier that day been cleared off, had been fired. But as for the reason, Beckett said they’d have to read a forthcoming report from the Associated Press.
Minutes later, that story hit the bureau like a bombshell: Solomon had been fired, the AP reported, 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.”
According to the report, Solomon had been offered a 10 percent stake in a new company by an Iranian-born aviation magnate named Farhad Azima. Solomon told the AP he never “entered into any business dealings” with his source and never intended to. The Journal wouldn’t confirm or deny this part of the report but apparently saw enough to let him go.
“We are dismayed by the actions and poor judgment of Jay Solomon,” the Journal said in a statement. “The allegations raised by this reporting are serious. While our own investigation continues, we have concluded that Mr. Solomon violated his ethical obligations as a reporter, as well as our standards. He has not been forthcoming with us about his actions or his reporting practices and he has forfeited our trust. Mr. Solomon is no longer employed by The Wall Street Journal.”
Solomon is no slouch. His work covering national security and foreign affairs had been submitted by the paper for Pulitzer consideration, according to former and current Journal employees. He’s the author of a book about Iran and is widely considered among the staff to be a favorite of Editor in Chief Gerard Baker, who would often praise him in editors’ meetings.
Solomon’s two decades at the Journal included stints in Asia and Africa. While in Washington, he had become a well-sourced fixture on the foreign policy social scene. He’s known to have a close working relationship with Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States.
He had drawn criticism, though, from some colleagues and government officials who perceived his work to show a bias against the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. In his 2016 book, “The Iran Wars,” Solomon wrote that the deal “rather than calming the world’s most combustible region, risks inflaming it.”
No one, however, saw him as a potential business partner with his sources. That is, until the Associated Press, in the course of reporting another story, came across emails and text messages between Solomon and Azima that Azima’s lawyers said were stolen by hackers. Over the past three decades, Azima has been tied to the Iran-contra affair, dealt weapons to Persian Gulf and Balkan nations, and worked his ample connections in Washington.
Hours before the Solomon story broke, the AP reported that Azima, 75, is under investigation on suspicions that he bribed a former UAE official in order to reap profits from a hotel sale in Tbilisi, Georgia. It was in the process of reporting this story that reporters came across his correspondence with Solomon.
In April 2015, the AP reported Wednesday, Azima wrote to Solomon about a possible $725 million contract with the United Arab Emirates, in which he asked the reporter to bring the proposal to a UAE government representative he was lunching with the following day.
“We all wish best of luck to Jay on his first defense deal,” Azima wrote to Solomon and others in the email.
And the exchanges went both ways. In one particularly suspect instance from October 2014, Solomon texted Azima: “Our business opportunities are so promising.”
On Wednesday, Solomon expressed regrets for his actions while at the same time insisting that things weren’t quite as bad as they may look.
“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.”
Hours after the sudden all-staff meeting, Journal employees were still coming to grips with what this all means.
“I can’t imagine this will go away quickly,” one of them said. “Someone must be going through all his articles now. It might take a little while to know exactly how bad this is.”