A former Wall Street Journal writer claims that a major US law firm deployed mercenary hackers to fire him and harm his image.
Jay Solomon, the Journal’s former chief foreign reporter, claimed in a complaint filed late Friday that Philadelphia-based Dechert LLP collaborated with Indian hackers to obtain emails between him and one of his primary sources, Iranian American aviation executive Farhad Azima.
The texts, which showed Azima floating the notion of the two of them going into business together, were placed into a dossier and circulated in a successful attempt to get him fired, according to Solomon.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Washington, Dechert “wrongfully exposed this dossier first to Mr. Solomon’s employer, the Wall Street Journal at its Washington DC bureau, and then to other media outlets in an attempt to malign and discredit him.” It said the campaign “effectively caused Mr. Solomon to be blackballed by the journalistic and publishing community.”
In an email, Dechert stated that it disputes the claim and intends to fight it in court. Azima, who filed his own complaint against Dechert in New York on Thursday, had no immediate reaction.
Solomon’s claim is the most recent in a string of legal measures in response to Reuters’ story on hired hackers operating out of India. Reuters reported in June on the activities of multiple hack-for-hire outfits, including BellTroX and CyberRoot from the Delhi area, that was involved in a decade-long series of espionage efforts targeting thousands of people, including over 1,000 lawyers from 108 different law firms.
Reuters reported at the time that individuals who had become hacker targets while engaging in at least seven distinct cases had each initiated their own investigations into the cyberespionage campaign.
That number has since grown. Azima, Solomon’s former source, is among those who have gone to court over the alleged hacking. His lawyers, like Solomon’s, allege that Dechert worked with BellTroX, CyberRoot, and a slew of private investigators to steal his emails and publish them to the web.
BellTroX and CyberRoot are not parties to the suit and could not immediately be reached. Executives at both firms have previously denied wrongdoing.
Solomon and Azima allege that Dechert undertook the hack-and-leak operation in the interest of its client, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi, ruler of the Middle Eastern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. Reuters has reported that lawyers for Ras Al Khaimah’s investment agency – RAKIA – used the emails to help win a fraud lawsuit filed against Azima in London in 2016.
Azima, who denies RAKIA’s fraud allegations, is trying to have the judgment thrown out.
The hacked emails were used in court, but they also made their way to The Associated Press, which published two articles about Azima in June of 2017, one of which showed the airline entrepreneur had offered reporter Solomon a minority ownership in a firm he was forming. Solomon was sacked by the Journal shortly before the AP’s story was published, alleging ethical issues.
Solomon claims he never accepted Azima’s proposal or gained financially from their relationship. In a first-person account of the controversy published in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018, the ex-journalist stated that he never questioned Azima’s claims of economic chances because he was attempting to amuse a man who had been critical of his reporting on the Middle East. Solomon acknowledged “serious mistakes in managing my source relationship with Azima” including accepting stays on the businessman’s yacht. But he said he had been the target of an “incredibly effective” information operation.
The Journal, which is not a party to suit, declined comment. The AP did not immediately return a message. Solomon said in a statement Saturday that the hack-and-leak he suffered was an example of “a trend that’s becoming a great threat to journalism and media, as digital surveillance and hacking technologies become more sophisticated and pervasive. This is a major threat to the freedom of the press.”