Monday, July 16, 2012

Smirnoff planning on fighting dismissal from Oxford American

Posted By on Mon, Jul 16, 2012 at 7:03 PM

Marc Smirnoff Oxford American magazine image
  • Marc Smirnoff

After getting fired on Sunday, Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff said he and managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald are in the process of hiring lawyers "to find out what exactly the next step" is for the pair.

Smirnoff said that last Wednesday, July 11, he heard from Oxford American Literary Project board chairman Rick Massey, who asked him and Fitzgerald to come to Little Rock on Thursday, July 12 to meet with attorneys. When they arrived, Smirnoff said attorneys questioned him for three hours and Fitzgerald for two, but Smirnoff said that neither he nor Fitzgerald were told the specific allegations levied against them; rather the questions were more general.

"I don’t know what the board found us guilty of," he said.

"One thing they asked me was had I ever served alcohol at a party to underage interns," he said. "And the answer was, 'yes.' I know that’s illegal and I have to own up to it."

Smirnoff said he couldn't talk about other questions because he was in the process of hiring an attorney, but said he objected to most of the claims, many of which he said were contradictory. "I’m not even convinced that they were illegal," he said.

Though he wasn't told the specific allegations, he said based on the questions, he thinks they came from three people, one of whom he had recently fired and two of whom he was considering firing.

On Friday, July 13, Smirnoff said that Sabin told him and Fitzgerald that he had until noon on Saturday to present papers and witnesses to their defense. Smirnoff said he told Sabin, "How dare you give us so little time to defend ourselves against a slew of confusing and contradictory and outrageous charges?"

Smirnoff said he and Fitzgerald were banned from speaking before the Oxford American Literary Project board. "They didn’t want to hear from the founder of the magazine. I would like to think that I had worked for and believed in a magazine that had complete integrity and honor during tough times," he said.

Asked to reiterate that his plans going forward included hiring a lawyer, Smirnoff said, "Yes. Among other things."

Asked to elaborate, he said, "Warwick Sabin knows what the other things are because I told him what I was going to do."

Told that sounded ominous, he said, "I don’t think getting fired and not knowing the reasons for it are any less ominous."

Sabin said, on the advice of counsel, he couldn't comment on anything related to the end of the employment of Fitzgerald and Smirnoff at the Oxford American. See Sabin's comment below.

As noted in an earlier post, I once worked at the Oxford American with Smirnoff and Fitzgerald and Sabin is a former Arkansas Times associate editor and columnist.

UPDATE: Fitzgerald made this post on Facebook:

Dear Friends: Marc Smirnoff, founder and editor of The Oxford American, and I, the magazine's managing editor and art editor, have been fired in the strangest, most secretive manner imaginable. We plan to give the full details and truth of what we know as soon as possible, but we must first focus on preparing our legal response. In the meantime, we send out our heartfelt gratitude to those many people who have enriched our lives by their connection and support to the real Oxford American

UPDATE II: Sabin sends along a note in response.

Now that Mr. Smirnoff and Ms. Fitzgerald have disclosed certain details of the situation, I am obligated to respond.

Earlier this month, the Oxford American Board of Directors engaged professional legal counsel to conduct a thorough and fair investigation of allegations made against Mr. Smirnoff and Ms. Fitzgerald. The entire Board then met for two hours on Sunday to carefully review and discuss with counsel the findings of the investigation, and it voted unanimously in separate roll calls to terminate the employment of Mr. Smirnoff and Ms. Fitzgerald.

UPDATE III: Smirnoff responds to Sabin's response among other things on the jump.

UPDATE IV: Reached by phone, board chairman Rick Massey had this to say in response to Smirnoff's latest statement, "We conducted a thorough investigation. We interviewed everybody that the investigation led us to. Overall we interviewed many more than three people, including current and former interns and employees."

UPDATE V: Wednesday evening, July 18.

An FOI request to UCA , which houses the magazine's editorial offices, has produced letters written to University President Tom Courtway by Smirnoff and Carol Ann Fitzgerald, in which they elaborate on their contention that Oxford American officials hadn't given them adequate time to respond to "preposterous" allegations against them by three employees who'd either been fired or were in danger of losing their jobs. The letters are lengthy and explicit. But Smirnoff's adds some to what he'd said previously about what the magazine board questioned him about in advance of the firing.

The gist of the questions directed at me concerned whether I had ever served alcohol to minors at my private residence (yes), whether I had ever sexually harassed an Oxford American intern at or during our UCA existence (no), and whether I had ever touched or photographed the feet (no other body part mentioned!) of an Oxford American intern (yes).

He elaborated later:

"Yes, I allowed drinking in a controlled environment (guilty, but, fyi, off-campus and no kids were allowed to drive); Yes, with their permission I have touched the feet of two ex-OA interns (guilty, but, fyi, off-campus and also I must plead guilty to other approved touches: kissing some heads (both genders), patting some backs (ditto), even lifting a person up once in a while — but I have never had, and never will have, sex with one of our Arkansas OA/UCA, etc., interns."

For her part, Fitzgerald said she'd been a victim of harassment herself by another employee.

ALSO: Smirnoff complained in an interview with the Log Cabin Democrat about the OA Board and said the case pitted him and Fitzgerald against "fancy, rich, powerful, sharply dressed people."

1. Let me begin with a literary critique as that is my lone area of possible expertise: Is it only me or can anyone else detect the emptiness in Sabin’s DOA prose? In cold, stiff, lifeless legalese, he strains to prove a pulse. This is the hardy pen that will lead The NEW Oxford American into realms of “new energy”?

Alas, a politician is no more qualified to run a complicated, heartfelt, messy literary mag than I am qualified to run a million-dollar political campaign.

2. Sabin’s idea of "a thorough and fair investigation" is to: Hire lawyers to “investigate” Carol Ann Fitzgerald and me with perplexing and contradictory questions for two to three hours each on Thursday, July 12. (We, meanwhile, had no counsel present.) The next day, Sabin gives us 24 hours to provide documentation and witnesses for our defense. He doesn’t tell us what we are being charged with (we had to guess from a multitude of baffling questions and we still don’t know if we guessed right) and bans our access to any editorial staff, or material in the office, or on our computers, etc., that might exonerate us.

That’s it. Sabin’s idea of due process is to allow two long-term, hard-working, utterly loyal editors 24 hours to defend their careers and honor; 24 hours to establish truths against tricky, overwhelming lies. (Our accusers, by the way, consisted of three disgruntled employees I had either just fired or severely disciplined.)

Sabin also banned us from speaking to the Board of Directors when they met on Sunday in the morning of July 14 to decide our fate.

We don’t know if any part of our hasty defense was presented to the Board.

We don’t know what Sabin or his investigators said about us to the Board. We are guessing it wasn’t anything cheery.

3. I must also point out—excuse the length of this note but lies are simple to pass along but very difficult to disprove—that “Interim Editor” Sabin’s rebuke to this blog of our behavior is built atop a lie. It was he, and he alone, who initiated the breaking of the confidentiality agreement that his own lawyers lectured us NOT to break. A simple paper-trail demonstrates that on July 11, the very day before these lectures, Sabin was the one who told the UCA police (in language that was republished in the Log Cabin Democrat, just as Sabin, a former publicist for Lu Hardin at UCA, knew it would be) that “Marc Smirnoff and Carol Ann Fitzgerald” were being investigated for “inappropriate conduct,” and that we needed to be locked out of our UCA offices (on July 11) because I, Smirnoff, was “very upset and agitated.”

What’s confidential or internal—or unbiased—about that? (Nada.)

Just as bad, Sabin’s description of me is utterly false, if not libelous. On July 11 (my birthday), I wasn’t in Conway (I was in Fayetteville) and I never even spoke to Sabin that day. In fact, I have not spoken to Sabin for nine straight blissful days—since July 10. (Let’s call it a communication breakdown.) How, then, in this silence, was The NEW Oxford American’s “Interim Editor” able to disclose to the newspaper public that I was “very upset and agitated”? Does he possess psychic powers? Did he bribe a confused maid to plant a bug in my smoking jacket? Did he disguise himself with platform shoes and a blonde wig and follow me into the Dickson Street Bookshop?

The answer to the last three questions is the same: No. That’s because I wasn’t “very upset and agitated.” I was simply astonished and hurt by the news I heard—and nothing more. I have an honest witness who will testify to my relative calm.

Thank you for allowing me this reply.


Marc Smirnoff, founder, ex-editor, The Oxford American (on behalf also of Carol Ann Fitzgerald, ex-managing editor, ex-art editor, The Oxford American)

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