Wall Street Journal fires top reporter Jay Solomon over ethics violation

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The chief foreign affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal was fired on Wednesday after evidence surfaced that he had become entangled in the business dealings of an Iranian-born aviation titan who was one of his key sources.

The correspondent, Jay Solomon, is a highly regarded veteran of The Journal and Washington diplomatic circles, and his dismissal came as a shock to the paper's newsroom.

Shortly after the firing was announced, The Associated Press published a report detailing Solomon's communications with Farhad Azima, an Iranian-born businessman, about a venture that at times involved aerial espionage in Iran and the sale of defence equipment to the United Arab Emirates.

It was unclear if Solomon ever formally entered into a commercial arrangement or received compensation tied to Azima, according to the AP report.

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In a statement to AP, Solomon conceded "mistakes in my reporting" and apologised to his colleagues at The Journal.

"I never entered into any business with Farhad Azima, nor did I intend to," Solomon wrote. "But I understand why the emails and the conversations I had with Azima may look like I was involved in some seriously troubling activities."

Azima has had a colourful career in the aviation and defence industries, including a cameo in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, when he was identified as the owner of an aircraft used to clandestinely ferry US military equipment to the Iranian armed forces.

Journalists for AP were pursuing an investigation of Azima when they obtained a huge trove of electronic documents late last year; the documents revealed correspondence and other communications between Solomon and Azima about a potential business arrangement.

The AP notified The Journal of its findings and asked about Solomon's involvement.

"We are dismayed by the actions and poor judgment of Jay Solomon," The Journal's communications director, Steve Severinghaus, said in a statement on Wednesday.

"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."

The Journal's statement added, "He has not been forthcoming with us about his actions or his reporting practices, and he has forfeited our trust."

In The Journal's Washington bureau, the mood on Wednesday was one of astonishment. Although AP was close to publishing its report, Solomon's colleagues had no idea about his firing until shortly after 3pm Eastern time, when the paper's bureau chief, Paul Beckett, called an abrupt all-hands meeting and announced Solomon's dismissal.

Solomon, who is based in Washington, had worked at The Journal for about two decades, including overseas assignments in Asia and Africa, according to a biography on his personal website. He was the paper's lead reporter on the negotiations over nuclear arms between Iran and the Obama administration, travelling to the Middle East to meet sources and dig up scoops.

Colleagues said Solomon was a serious and focused journalist who was seen as a star at the Journal from a young age.

His firing was the latest in a spate of unwelcome news for The Journal. Layoffs and buyouts have agitated the newsroom, and the newspaper's editor has been forced to defend its coverage of the Trump administration, which some critics have said was too soft.

The paper has also lost senior writers and editors, including Washington correspondents Carol E. Lee and Damian Paletta, as well as deputy editor-in-chief Rebecca Blumenstein and columnist Bret Stephens, who both joined The New York Times.