A series of emails between Arianna Huffington, her partners and the late conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart shed new light on the early days of The Huffington Post.
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The story of the site’s founding is the subject of a bitter lawsuit filed by two Democratic political advisers who claim Huffington blatantly stole their idea for a leftwing alternative to the conservative Drudge Report.
In October, a New York judge dismissed a number of claims but allowed Peter Daou and James Boyce, both former advisers to Presidential candidate John Kerry, to go forward with a state claim based on theft of an idea. The judge later allowed them to conduct document discovery of the defendants.
The discovery process produced a number of emails and minutes from meetings that are described in the amended complaint filed today.
The complaint argues that the emails help show that Huffington and her business partner Kenneth Lerer built the Huffington Post on a stolen idea and that they actively recruited others to help them implement it while stringing along Daou and Boyce:
Huffington and Lerer likewise were secretly communicating in December 2004 with a political activist named Andrew Breitbart in an effort to persuade Breitbart to participate, without Boyce and Daou [..] the timing of these discussions exposes Defendants’ fraudulent intentions, because Defendants were already in discussions with Breitbart about Plaintiffs’ ideas … at a time they were still pretending to be working with Plaintiffs. [...]
Breitbart’s “quick first email pass at the idea” identifies the very same two primary components of the website that Plaintiffs had previously identified for Huffington and Lerer: [...] This “quick idea” – which became The Huffington Post – is the very idea that was stolen from Boyce and Daou.
The late Breitbart was a prominent conservative journalist who, after falling out with Huffington, claimed that he “created the Huffington Post” and that “I drafted the plan. They followed the plan.”
The new complaint also includes emails from Daou to his aunt, writer Erica Jong, in which he claims credit for founding the website. In another email to President Obama’s former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, that was allegedly forwarded to Huffington herself, Boyce refers to being “involved with the Huffington Post” from the beginning.
In public statements and legal filings, Huffington and Lerer have downplayed the role of Daou and Boyce and claimed that the ideas they presented in an ideas memo are different from what the website actually became.
The new complaint also contains allegations of a cover-up based on minutes of a meeting held between Huffington, Lerer, Breitbart and an editor in which the group debated what “narrative” to offer the media about the Huffington Post’s origins:
Breitbart proposed this answer: “I knew what was missing in the blogosphere, I just needed the rolodex to be able to put it all together, and Arianna provided that. … Arianna called Andrew to talk about an alternative to the Drudge Report. Andrew called Arianna about the group blog – there’s nobody he knows besides Arianna who could make this work.” [...]Deceitfully, however, the “narrative” wrote Boyce and Daou out of the picture entirely.
The emails and other documents cited in the new complaint don’t appear to contain smoking gun proof that Huffington schemed to cut out Daou and Boyce after stealing their idea. But the new allegations, including an email in which Huffington appears to have forwarded a confidential business plan written by Boyce to a subordinate, could strengthen the plaintiffs’ case.
The plaintiffs also use the documents to reassert new claims for fraud and breach of contract that the judge had initially struck out last October. The overall legal process is likely to drag on for many more months.
AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million in the spring of 2011. The acquisition has proved rocky in recent months and led to rumors that the two entities might part ways.