Lawsuit Claims Arianna Huffington Stole Idea for HuffPo

Democratic strategists allege they presented concept at 2004 dinner party; founders fire back: “We have officially entered Bizzaro World”

A pair of Democratic strategists filed a lawsuit on Monday claiming that Huffington Post founders Arianna Huffington and Ken Lerer stole their idea for the site.

In the suit filed in New York Supreme Court late Monday, Peter Daou and James Boyce — who served as consultants for John Kerry and Hillary Clinton’s failed 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, respectively — allege Huffington and Lerer “entered into a joint venture” with them to develop the liberal site they, in fact, had "conceived.”

According to the suit, Daou and Boyce — who have blogged for the Huffington Post on numerous occasions — “believed that Huffington’s ‘personal brand’ and Lerer’s financial resources would perfectly complement their unique formula for a website combining news aggregation, a political celebrity blog collective, and online community-building, which could serve as a liberal counterweight to conservative talk radio and websites like The Drudge Report.” The pair are seeking unspecified damages.

Huffington and Lerer issued a joint statement late Monday dismissing the “bizzarro” suit, calling Daou and Boyce “political operatives who we rejected going into business with or hiring 6 years ago, and who had absolutely nothing to do with creating, running, financing, or building the Huffington Post.”

“First they tried to cash in, demanding we pay them to keep their ludicrous claim quiet,” Huffington and Lerer said. “Of course, we refused. Then they said they'd go away for just a little money. Again, we refused. Now they're saying all they want is a donation to ‘progressive causes.’ How noble.”

On Tuesday, Daou wrote a blog post in response to the joint statement.

Back to the lawsuit:

After weeks of meetings, conversations, and emails among the parties, Huffington and Lerer breached their obligations to Peter and James, excluded them from the venture, and claimed credit for the ideas and contributions to the site that Peter and James had given them. […] The reality of Peter’s and James’ role in the conception and creation of the site has been erased from history, and Peter and James have never been compensated for their participation in the joint venture. This lawsuit has been filed to right those wrongs.

That last bit sounds vaguely like the story behind the origin of Facebook — on which “The Social Network” movie is based — with Daou and Boyce playing the role of the Winklevoss twins.

More claims from the suit, which, as far as these things go, are pretty detailed:

In mid-November 2004, James gave the memorandum, which was entitled “1460” to reflect the number of days between presidential elections, to Huffington. Huffington agreed to be substantially involved in the project. In the “1460” memorandum, her designated role was as strategic partner and investor.  […] As set forth in the “1460” memorandum that James gave to Huffington, the core objective in creating the Website was to “use the potential of the Internet to the fullest extent possible to continue the momentum started during the [2004 presidential] campaign and re-organize the Democratic Party from the outside in, not the inside out.”

The “1460” memorandum was used as the basis for a presentation Daou allegedly gave during a party at Huffington’s home, where 30 “prominent political activists and Democratic donors” including Larry David “gathered to discuss the future of the Democratic Party in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s re-election.”

According to the suit, “James, Peter and Lerer joined Huffington for breakfast at her home the next day, December 4, 2004. At the meeting, [they] discussed and confirmed in detail Peter’s and James’ concrete ideas and plans for the proposed Website. They agreed that the Website should highlight Huffington’s personality more effectively than her then-existing website at ‘ariannaonline.com.’ They agreed that once the Website was launched, they would each seek scoops and exclusives from their respective contacts in the media and Democratic Party [and get] political luminaries and public figures should be invited to blog — the distinguishing feature and predominant claim to fame of the Huffington Post."

At the conclusion of that meeting,  “Peter, James, Huffington, and Lerer all shook hands and Huffington stated, ‘It will be great to work together.’ […] Peter and James believed they were partners with Huffington and Lerer in a joint venture to develop” the Huffington Post.

That’s not how Huffington and Lerer remember it. Prior to the party, Daou and Boyce “had asked Arianna if she would join a company they were thinking of starting called "1460." It was, as they described it, a political messaging company. We had follow-up meetings and conversations with a number of people after the gathering at Arianna's home as we continued to develop the idea of the Huffington Post. Many offered ideas, suggestions, and proposals. Boyce and Daou were among them. They sent us a memo that incorporated some of our thinking about the site, and proposed that they come work for us. We declined and moved ahead with our plans.”

Any lawsuit filed six years after an alleged wrongdoing smells funny. And the fact that, as Michael Calderone noted, the plaintiffs have written for the Huffington Post numerous times over the years — Boyce just last month — makes the stench worse.

But the level of detail in the suit they filed is worth reading, as it paints a pretty candid picture of what it’s like to be political insiders — whether you believe them or not — leaning against the window of a nascent, buzzy startup.

Click here to read the entire lawsuit.