PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Still a top communications adviser at the time, Jimmy Soni, right, accompanied Missouri Governor Eric Greitens to a vandalized Jewish cemetery in February.
Jimmy Soni, a former aide to Governor Eric Greitens, is in the news again this week — and Greitens isn't answering questions about why a man who was accused of sexual harassment was on his campaign payroll as recently as September.
As Greitens was preparing to take office as Missouri governor last year, he started getting questions about his hiring of Soni to be his administration's top communications adviser. In 2014, Soni had left a managing editor position at the Huffington Post amid a cloud of suspicion that his ouster was in fact connected to a pattern of sexual harassment.
Not surprisingly, the hiring drew condemnation
from the state's Democratic Party, but Greitens brushed off criticism with his trademark bluster. In January, Greitens dodged questions about Soni from the Springfield News-Leader,
saying that he would not respond "to the kind of ridiculous allegations of desperate political opponents who are just bringing up unfounded accusations from the past."
Still, about three months later, Soni left the job,
which had come with a $119,158 salary. Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
that the separation was amicable: "The plan had always been for him to help us during the transition and the early days of governing, and then move on to prepare for his upcoming book launch in July and spend time with his young family."
However, according to campaign finance records, Greitens' campaign committee, Greitens for Missouri, continued to pay Soni for communications work. The two payments, in August and September, totaled $8,000.
Those payments came despite evidence that Soni was indeed pushed out of the Huffington Post after AOL, the company's corporate parent, investigated him for sexually harassing young female employees in the company's Editorial Fellows program — basically, interns.
In 2014, Gawker interviewed eight current and former Huntington Post employees. The employees claimed that Soni used the internship program "as a continually-replenished pool of potential romantic partners."
Although the staffers who spoke to Gawker did not accuse Soni of explicitly pressuring women for sex by offering promotions or raises, he was known to "aggressively" court female fellows. One staffer said his behavior met the definition of "classic sexual harassment."
From the Gawker report:
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.
One month later, in May 2014, the Huffington Post announced that Soni was leaving his post as managing editor in order to helm the website’s India edition. One month after that, he left the company
Soni would find support within the fledgling Greitens administration. The journalist had a history with the political newcomer: Greitens lists Soni as one of the editors of his 2011 book The Heart and the Fist
. Soni had also served on the steering committee for the non-profit veterans-aid organization Greitens founded, the Mission Continues.
The allegations of sexual harassment against Soni got new life in December 2016, when the administration added Soni to its transition team. While much of the initial criticism was based on the 2014 Gawker article, the Kansas City Sta
r re-reported the story
. Its article, which cited interviews with five of Soni’s former Huffington Post colleagues, came to the same conclusion: Soni had been investigated by corporate lawyers from AOL for sexual harassment involving interns and subsequently allowed to resign.
And the story's not dead yet.
In recent weeks, as allegations of sexual harassment have rocked Hollywood, media outlets have also come under fire. Huffington Post became one of them on Monday, when Gizmodo revisited the Soni story, publishing a bombshell update
based on interviews with nine current and former Huffington Post employees.
This time, the story made it clear that Soni's behavior was enabled by no less than the company's founder, Arianna Huffington. Gizmodo reporter Melanie Ehrenkranz "not only independently confirmed that the investigation was indeed the reason for [Soni's] transfer, but that Huffington knew about his actions before they were reported to HR, according to a former employee with direct knowledge of the investigation."
It's not clear what role Soni has played in the Greitens administration since his publicized departure earlier this year — or what his work for the governor entailed last summer. During Soni's time with the governor's transition team, the Kansas City Star
reported that the former journalist had "helped craft the inaugural speech and state of the state address and served as a communications adviser in Greitens’ office."
We reached out to Greitens' spokesman Parker Briden yesterday with questions about the payments to Soni last summer, as well as the governor's stance on the allegations of sexual harassment.
Briden did not respond by press time.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com