Gov.-elect Eric Greitens’ decision to hire a former Huffington Post editor who has faced sexual harassment accusations is drawing criticism from Missouri Democrats.
Jimmy Soni was managing editor of the liberal news website The Huffington Post from 2012 to 2014. Earlier this month the Greitens campaign paid him $11,000 to assist with hiring and communications. Austin Chambers, Greitens’ senior adviser, recently told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Soni will “play a role in the administration” after Greitens takes office Jan. 9.
The initial reason given for Soni stepping down as Huffington Post managing editor in 2014 was that he was going to oversee the launch of the website’s India edition in New Dehli. He later said it was because he was working on a book.
But a story published by the website Gawker at the time alleges the actual reason was that he was being investigated by the Huffington Post’s corporate parent AOL for sexual harassment involving interns. Five of Soni’s former Huffington Post colleagues interviewed by The Star this week confirmed the Gawker article and say Soni was pushed out of his job because of the sexual harassment investigation.
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After nearly two years of scandals in Missouri politics — from the resignations last year of a pair of state lawmakers for inappropriate conduct with interns to a spate of harassment lawsuits revealed in recent months against the Department of Corrections — the idea of bringing someone into state government who’s faced recent sexual harassment allegations has inspired scorn from Democrats.
“The governor-elect ran on the idea that he was going to clean up Jefferson City,” said state Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat. “Yet one of the biggest problems we face in Jefferson City is exactly the type of allegations that are surrounding his new hire. I think hiring (Soni) would be a mistake.”
Rep. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, said Jefferson City has a “well-established problem with sexual harassment.” She said Greitens must “thoroughly investigate all claims of misconduct against any person before asking him or her to join the administration.”
Shortly after Soni’s work for Greitens became public, Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber tweeted that there is “already a sickening amount of sexism in Jefferson City. It doesn’t appear Gov.-elect Greitens cares to change that.”
Chambers declined to comment on the Democrats’ criticism of Soni or the accusations against him. Soni also declined to comment.
According to the Gawker article and interviews with Soni’s former coworkers by The Star, when Soni stepped down as managing editor he was being investigated by AOL over his management of the Huffington Post’s editorial fellowship program, which are the website’s interns.
Soni allegedly contacted female interns through Facebook and after hours phone calls hoping to meet up for drinks. Former co-workers say they overheard him at a company party joking that he was using the internship program to find a wife, and he allegedly had a consensual relationship with at least one intern during his time with the website.
Interns hired through the fellowship program worked on a trial basis for four to six months, after which they could be offered a job at the Huffington Post. The investigation was triggered when two interns told management that they felt if they didn’t flirt with Soni their chances of landing a full-time job with the website would suffer.
Soni responded to the Gawker article at the time by releasing a statement saying he “won’t comment on unsubstantiated rumors.”
Similar accusations of harassment have swirled in Missouri politics over the last two years.
In May 2015, House Speaker John Diehl of St. Louis County resigned after The Star revealed he’d exchanged sexually charged text messages with a 19-year-old House intern. In the weeks following his resignation, dozens of women told The Star that sexual harassment has been rampant in the Missouri Capitol for years. Then came the resignation of Sen. Paul LeVota of Independence, who was accused of sexual harassment by a pair of former interns who said he sent text messages propositioning them for sex.
Shortly after the start of the 2016 legislative session, a lobbyist was briefly banned from the Missouri Capitol over allegations that he sexually harassed legislative interns. He was allowed to return as long as he notified Capitol police 24 hours in advance.
And in recent months, a string of harassment and discrimination lawsuits against various agencies within Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration have come to light. Most notably, The Pitch reported on numerous harassment lawsuits against the Department of Corrections, a story that led to the announced resignation of the corrections director and sparked investigations by the legislature and the state auditor.
When he took over after Diehl’s resignation, House Speaker Todd Richardson vowed to take steps to repair the Capitol’s tarnished image and ensure the safety of those working in the statehouse. Richardson directed the House to revamp its sexual harassment and intern policies, saying as he unveiled the new policies that “while I am speaker, sexual harassment will not be tolerated.”
Richardson did not respond to a request for comment on Soni.
Soni is a 2007 graduate of Duke University, Greitens’ alma mater. He worked as a political consultant and as a speechwriter before becoming Arianna Huffington’s chief of staff. He was named managing editor of the Huffington Post in 2012 when he was 26 years old.
Since leaving the Huffington Post, Soni has written for the New York Observer and Washington Examiner and co-authored a book entitled “Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar.”
Soni served on the steering committee of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit Greitens founded to empower wounded and disabled veterans to begin new lives as citizen leaders after returning home. Greitens lists Soni as one of the editors of his 2011 book “The Heart and the Fist.”