Fights between interns, a senior editor and the editor of The Oxford American magazine erupted just weeks before editor Marc Smirnoff and managing editor and art editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald were fired Sunday.
On Wednesday evening, Smirnoff sat in a coffee shop in Conway and described a "whirlwind" of events, rumors, "contradictions" and questions about his conduct as editor of the prestigious literary magazine. He pointed to the secrecy surrounding the Oxford American Literary Project board's decision to investigate and then fire him and Fitzgerald. Even days after his firing, Smirnoff is still unsure why he was fired, he said.
"We've just worked our butts off in good faith," Smirnoff said.
Smirnoff and Fitzgerald have decided to take their fight public. 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 witnesses list in his defense by noon Saturday, the day before the board unaminously fired him. He said the board already made up its mind. This is a case that pitted Smirnoff and Fitzgerald against "fancy, rich, powerful, sharply dressed people."
"I don' know what they decided against," Smirnoff said.
Smirnoff is convinced three people turned on him after he told them to stop a drinking game during a July 4 retreat. They refused, he and the senior editor fought, and later Smirnoff fired one intern and was writing a probation letter for another just the day before Publisher Warwick Sabin closed his office at the University of Central Arkansas and changed the locks. He had asked the senior editor to resign, Smirnoff said.
"They were all equally stinkers," Smirnoff said.
At the same time, Smirnoff has admitted to giving underage interns alcohol, which is a crime, said Board Director Rick Massey. And, in a letter sent recently to UCA President Tom Courtway, Smirnoff admitted he had touched or photographed feet.
Smirnoff put the blame for what has happened to him and Fitzgerald squarely on three people employed at the magazine, 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.
He said he couldn't say how many people were interviewed because he wanted to "protect the innocent."
"We want to protect innocent people," Massey said.
Smirnoff's actions against the three employees is tantamount to "retribution," Massey said.
Massey couldn't be specific about how Fitzgerald's case fit into the investigation, but he said the board has adequate reason to fire both Smirnoff and Fitzgerald. Smirnoff alluded to a rumor that was sexual in nature. In an Arkansas Times blog, Fitzgerald said she had been a victim of sexual harassment by another employee.
"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 is innocent and that is why he wants to tell his side of the story.
Smirnoff said he and Fitzgerald are talking with lawyers but he hasn't decided to hire one yet.
"I care about the truth more than I care about lawyers, quite frankly," Smirnoff said.
But, when asked about the kinds of questions he was asked during interviews with attorneys Thursday, before being fired Sunday, Smirnoff said he couldn't say what the questions were because "we're still thinking this through."
In the end, it's the magazine that Smirnoff cares about most, he said. He is concerned that Sabin, whom he thinks of as a smooth politician, is taking over as interim editor at the magazine he's babied for the past 20 years.
Sabin will join the state House of Representatives in January. That a politician would take over goes against what Smirnoff believes in, he said.
Back at the coffee shop, Smirnoff rubbed his forehead, pulled his glasses off and then put them back on. He sat forward, fidgeted with his purple pen and drew "x" marks on his yellow legal notepad.
"I'm not thinking about my future," Smirnoff said. "I know there are some corrupt people who have snuck their way to the bosom of the magazine, and I have to fight them. This isn't about lawyers to me — this is about the heart and the soul of the Oxford American and, sadly in some ways, [the magazine] I still love."
UPDATE: Board chairman released a statement regarding OA firings this afternoon and addressed issues raised by Smirnoff in the media.
Essentially, Rick Massey said, in his statement, that Smirnoff and Fitzgerald were "directed not to talk to any employees of The Oxford American about the confidential investigation and to avoid retaliatory acts, they failed to follow the board's direction in that regard, and it is apparent from their many recent statements to the media and UCA President Tom Courtway that their retaliatory conduct against their presumed accusers continues."
Smirnoff and Fitzgerald issued letters to Courtway on Wednesday. Both letters say the senior editor sexually harassed Fitzgerald but that she chose to stay quiet. The letters say the senior editor made sexually inappropriate references about female writers, consistently made rude gestures and had a sexually inappropriate relationship with an intern.
Smirnoff said he and Fitzgerald came under fire after he fired an intern and pressured the editor to resign.
Interns have not returned messages seeking comments on their Facebook accounts. When approached at the UCA office earlier this week, an intern and an employee refered questions to Sabin. Sabin directed questions to Massey.