Russia’s Washington-based media empire is under federal investigation for racial discrimination in the workplace after at least three of its radio journalists complained they were subjected to or witnessed racial insults from management, unequal treatment of black employees, and retaliatory firings.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is investigating Voice of Russia (VOR), the radio arm of the Russian government’s U.S. media operation, and has started to subpoena emails and reach out to employees, according to sources close to the case.
The complaints were filed by two black female radio hosts, Jamila Bey and Kim Brown, and one white male radio host, Carmen Russell-Sluchansky. The three no longer work at VOR.
Bey and Brown were allegedly terminated from VOR last November, several months after filing their complaints. Russell-Sluchansky’s complaint contends he was let go last November because management believed he helped Bey and Brown file their claims.
"There were clearly different standards for different people," Bey told the Washington Free Beacon. "And if you were Russian or to the untrained eye could pass for Russian, things were easier for you … if your skin was white and not dark."
Bey said she and Brown were passed over for promotions, and singled out for official reprimands at a significantly higher rate and for minor issues compared to Russian and white employees.
"There were temp employees showing up 90 minutes late with regularity, and that was fine," said Bey. "Kim [Brown] shows up five minutes late and it’s Armageddon."
Other former and current VOR employees, who declined to speak on the record, gave similar accounts.
"The only people who have ever been written up or suspended for anything are Jamila and Kim," said a former employee. "Other people might get like a ‘don’t do that.’ But as far as official disciplinary action, only Jamila and Kim."
Roman Tokman, who was Bey’s boss and serves as the budget director at both VOR and the RT America TV station, told the Washington Free Beacon that company policy prevented him from commenting specifically on pending litigation.
"Rest assured, however, that it is and remains our position that the pending charges have no merit and the company believes that it will prevail as to those allegations," Tokman said.
Bey said she filed her complaint last July, when she was reportedly suspended from the air after calling the police on a white female coworker who allegedly hit her in the newsroom. She said she declined to press charges against the coworker.
"It was told to me by management that ‘You called the police, and that’s awful, and Roman [Tokman] is really angry at you about that, and you will be penalized for that,’" said Bey.
"I said ‘This is discriminatory, there’s a different standard for some people, I’m going to the EEOC about this.’"
In another incident, Bey said one of her managers left open a chat message with disparaging racial comments about staffers on the communal studio computer.
The message said "Kim Brown was too black, and Jamila is mean because she’s an Atheist, and that [a Puerto Rican employee] is okay because he’s not really black," said Bey.
"Kim brought this to senior management, and said ‘This is hostile,’" Bey said. "They [didn’t] care. Nobody cares that the black people get talked poorly about. It’s just the culture of the place."
Bey, Brown, and Russell-Sluchansky were terminated along with several other employees last November after the two women filed their EEOC complaints.
Bey said she was told that Tokman suspected Russell-Sluchansky orchestrated the EEOC complaints. She said management told her they were letting her go because of financial difficulties, but she believes it was in retaliation for the EEOC complaints.
The EEOC said it could not comment on or confirm the existence of ongoing investigations.
Public documents and interviews with current and former employees also shed new light on the inner workings of Russia’s U.S.-based news outlets.
VOR staffers are officially employed by a Delaware-based company called Intl. TV Services, Inc., which is registered to Russian businessman and admitted tax fraudster Alex Iazlovsky.
Iazlovsky also runs RTTV America, Inc., the company that employs staffers at the RT America TV station.
The Free Beacon has been unable to validate that VOR and RT America exist as individual taxable entities in the United States.
Bey said when she was hired in 2011, Tokman told her "‘Jamila, you do not work for Voice of Russia. You work for Intl. TV Services.’ Everybody worked for Intl. TV Services."
Several employees said Intl. TV Services was the employer name listed on paychecks and other tax documents.
Iazlovsky pleaded guilty to tax fraud last year after allegedly filing over $1 million in phony deductions for RTTV America, Inc., the Free Beacon reported earlier this month.
The editor-in-chief of RT in Moscow, Margarita Simonyan, said in an interview last week that RT America is planning to cut ties with Iazlovsky due to the case. Simonyan did not mention Iazlovsky’s role at VOR.
A spokesperson for RT did not respond to request for comment about the alleged split.
VOR employees said Tokman and Iazlovsky are relatives, and that they appear to be the conduit between the Russian government’s money and the VOR and RT America operations. Tokman declined to comment on his relationship with Iazlovsky.
"Iazlovsky has Tokman handle everything for VOR and while there is a bureau chief, Tokman can interfere as much as he wants," said one employee. "He’s the final word on hiring and firing."
Tokman’s exact role at the VOR office was puzzling to staffers, who said he was their supervisor and controlled the budget and human resources, but was rarely in the office.
"Roman was called a different thing in writing and in talking. He was budget director, he was budget manager, he was operation manager … and I just assumed it was the language barrier," Bey added. "I just believed, well I guess in Russia, if you’re a boss, you’re a boss—they just call you whatever."