Events leading up to the firings of longtime founder and editor Marc Smirnoff and managing editor and art editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald at The Oxford American have revealed allegations of sexual misconduct that have pitted current employees and interns against the top minds responsible for the magazine’s assention as a nationally acclaimed, literary magazine.
On Wednesday evening, Smirnoff sat in a Starbucks in Conway and described a “whirlwind” of events and secrecy surrounding the Oxford American Literary Project board’s decision to investigate and then fire him and Fitzgerald.
“We’ve just worked our butts off in good faith,” Smirnoff said.
Smirnoff and Fitzgerald have decided to take their fight public.
On Wednesday, the pair sent emails to Tom Courtway, president of the University of Central Arkansas where the magazine’s offices are located — to point out a slew of misbehavior, including sex between the senior editor and an intern which is against the magazine’s policy.
Arch Jones, UCA’s organizational and community services director, said Thursday afternoon that UCA has begun an administrative investigation into allegations of misconduct. In his email to Courtway, Smirnoff apologized for not taking care of the problems he saw among his staff earlier.
“I consistently noticed disturbing or suspicious behavior but I always allowed his acts to fit in the category of ‘isolated events,’” Smirnoff said in the email. “My failure to see what was truly in front of us is how I failed The OA and UCA.”
On Wednesday, while going over the events leading up to his dismissal, Smirnoff said he is “struggling” for what he loves — the heart and soul of The Oxford American.
He said the board didn’t give him enough time to prepare an adequate defense when he was told Friday to submit documents and a witnesses list in his defense by noon Saturday, the day before the board unanimously fired him. He could have used some documents from his workplace computer — the very place he was locked out of. He said the board already made up its mind.
Smirnoff is convinced three people turned on him after he told them to stop a drinking game during a July 4 retreat. They refused and he and the senior editor fought. Smirnoff said he’d had trouble with the senior editor previously and asked July 6 that the senior editor resign. On July 7, a complaint was filed with the board, which started a “factual investigation.”
The complaint was also filed the day after Smirnoff fired one intern on July 6 for “insubordination.” The editor was writing a probation letter for another just the day before Publisher Warwick Sabin closed his office at the UCA and changed the locks.
“They were all equally stinkers,” Smirnoff said.
At the same time, Smirnoff has admitted to giving underage interns alcohol, which is a crime, said Massey. And, in his letter to Courtway, Smirnoff admitted he had touched or photographed feet. He also mentioned he had kissed the tops of people’s heads. But he swore Wednesday he never had sex with or inappropriate relations with an intern.
“I have never had, and never will have, sex with one of our Arkansas OA/UCA, etc., interns,” Smirnoff wrote to Courtway.
Smirnoff put the blame for what has happened to him and Fitzgerald squarely on the senior editor and interns, but Massey said many, many more people — including former interns — were interviewed during the investigation earlier this month. They all corroborate that Smirnoff had behaved inappropriately, Massey said.
Massey said he couldn’t say how many people were interviewed because he wanted to “protect the innocent.”
Smirnoff’s actions against the employees is tantamount to “retribution,” Massey said. On Thursday, Massey released a statement that said the intern Smirnoff fired has been offered her job back. He pointed out the investigation included text messages, a voice recording and “Smirnoff’s and Fitzgerald’s own admissions.”
Attorney Nate Coulter, who represents the senior editor at Oxford American, said his client was sexually harassed by Fitzgerald. For her part, Fitzgerald said in her letter to Courtway that she was the one sexually harassed.
Fitzgerald didn’t raise the issue of her sexual harassment until after the senior editor filed his complaint, but she said everything she wrote — a lengthy list of explicit encounters and photographs of the senior editor flipping off the camera — is “100 percent true.” But, the two worked mostly alone in the office, so the accusations have come down to he-said she-said, Fitzgerald said in a phone interview Thursday.
“[We] pretty much worked alone in the office,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s the most disgusting pervert I’ve worked with in all these years.”
Massey said in his statement that none of the witnesses substantiated Fitzgerald’s claim. During an interview Wednesday, Massey reiterated that the board has adequate reason to fire both Smirnoff and Fitzgerald.
“I’d like in the interest of the magazine for this to be over,” Massey said. “It’s a sad time. It’s a sad thing when the board has to terminate the employment of two of its most important creative people.”
Massey said he had warned Fitzgerald and Smirnoff not to pursue the matter publicly, but Smirnoff said he and Fitzgerald are innocent, which is why they want to tell their side of the story.