Former Ozy editor Eugene S. Robinson suggested on Thursday that it was CEO Carlos Watson, rather than COO Samir Rao, who impersonated a Google executive on an investment call with Goldman Sachs that led to the shuttering of the media company last week.
Speaking on TheWrap-Up podcast, Robinson said: “People connected to Ozy? Maybe three or four have made mention of this, and outside of Ozy, pretty serious people, one or two have come to me and said that’s the only way it would have worked.”
Robinson said it was hard to believe that Watson wouldn’t have participated on that call, which was intended to secure a $40 million investment in the company by Goldman Sachs.
“Anybody who knows anything about leadership or business knows that for $40 million this is not a casual occurrence and that there was a lot of focus on it,” said Robinson. “The idea that he didn’t know what was going on beggars belief.” The former editor was terminated in June in a dispute over his Substack column.
The podcast was hosted by Wrap Editor Sharon Waxman and Assistant Managing Editor Lawrence Yee.
In its exposé, the New York Times wrote that Rao changed the video call to a voice conversation, and sent a new address for Google executive Alex Piper, and then altered his voice to impersonate Piper in order to vouch for Ozy’s strong YouTube presence.
Robinson said that numerous people who have reached out to him to say they believed the digitally altered voice actually belonged to Watson himself. As the face and brand of Ozy, Watson would have had a lot to lose — including the survival of his company — if he were to be exposed as responsible for this incident.
Watson did not respond to several attempts to reach him by phone, text and email to request a response. Rao also did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Since the report, Rao has not explained his involvement, and his social media and online profiles have disappeared.
A rep for Goldman Sachs also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
After this story was published Thursday night, Times media columnist Ben Smith tweeted, “I asked Watson this, and he denied it to me. Rao hasn’t commented one way or the other this whole time. Watson has been saying since February it was Rao, an assertion [investor and former Ozy board chairman] Marc Lasry also made.” (There is no indication that Lasry himself was on the fateful call.)
Previously, an individual with knowledge of Watson’s thinking told TheWrap that Watson was not on the call, and that he reacted the same day, after Goldman Sachs reached out to him to flag their suspicions. The FBI is currently investigating the incident, the Times reported.
But Robinson said that Watson and Rao typically took investment calls together in the Ozy conference room at its offices in Mountain View, California.
Sources told Times’ Smith there was something strange about the voice that presented the glowing reviews to the investors — it sounded like it was altered. In response, Watson cited this incident as a mental health crisis for his COO, and that Rao had since gotten treatment and returned to work after that.
The Zoom call took place in February as Goldman Sachs was closing a $40 million round of investment in Ozy, a nine-year-old media venture based in Mountain View. The video conference was supposedly between Piper, YouTube’s head of unscripted programming for YouTube Originals, and the Goldman Sachs asset management team.
Less than two weeks ago, Ozy was also exposed for inflating metrics on audience and traffic and making false claims about its shows, partnerships and investors over the years. Four days after the devastating report, the company board said Ozy was shutting down on a Friday. But by Monday, Watson reappeared on air saying Ozy was relaunching.
The full podcast will post on Friday.