For a high-flying tech startup preparing for an initial public offering, here was a truly horrendous piece of news: Its rising-star chief executive stood accused of brutally beating his girlfriend in a half-hour long bout of violence that police later said was captured on video.
That was the situation confronted this week by RadiumOne, a San Francisco-based online-advertising firm that specializes in data-driven content. By week's end, its 31-year-old CEO, Gurbaksh Chahal, dodged dozens of felonies, escaped prison time and pled guilty to lesser misdemeanor charges.
You may have never heard of RadiumOne, but the five-year-old startup was by no means unknown in tech and media circles. Along with striking vendor deals with media giants like Condé Nast Britain and raising tens of millions in venture-capital funding over the last year, the company had been rumored to be gearing up for a secret IPO, hoping to ride a wave of recent through-the-roof tech offerings like Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR). RadiumOne’s offering was recently in the final stages of preparation, according to anonymous sources cited by Bloomberg, and the company was riding high on a cash infusion from the likes of high-profile VC firms such as Crosslink Capital, Adams Street Partners and Trinity Ventures.
But on Thursday, Chahal’s name went viral for all the wrong reasons after news circulated that he was offered a plea deal and will serve no jail time in the domestic-violence case -- this despite the reported existence of video footage that is said to show Chahal hitting and kicking his girlfriend a staggering 117 times. Earlier this month, a judge ruled the video inadmissible as evidence, saying it was removed from Chahal’s apartment illegally. The victim, meanwhile, has reportedly been uncooperative with investigators, according to the San Francisco Business Times. Chahal, who had been facing 45 felonies, pled guilty to two misdemeanors: one count of domestic violence battery and one count of battery. The remaining charges were dropped, and Chahal got off with three years of probation, 25 hours of community service and a 52-week domestic-violence training program.
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Public response to the sentence has been harsh, with Facebook users flooding the RadiumOne Facebook page with a stream of angry comments. Many said Chahal should step down or be fired. “Oust the CEO if you want to stay in business,” one person wrote. “He may have gotten away with beating a woman and not serving jail time, but he shouldn't be allowed to continue running a company.”
It was a similar story on Twitter, with countless angry tweets aimed at the @RadiumOne and @gchahal accounts, as well as the accounts of some of Chahal’s financial backers. Although few laypeople could probably explain exactly what RadiumOne is, many were quick to call for boycotts, while others went after more visible targets, including the aforementioned Condé Nast, whose publications some Twitter users vowed to stop reading (and writing for).
In a statement to International Business Times, Condé Nast U.S. was quick to clarify that it’s the British division of the company that has a relationship with RadiumOne. “Condé Nast is not and has never been an investor in or partner of RadiumOne,” the representative said. “Our Britain division has a vendor relationship for sales software with the company, as do many other U.K.-based media companies. We do not condone abusive behavior and the U.K. company is reviewing its association.”
A spokeswoman for RadiumOne has not responded to a request for comment. IBTimes also contacted individual members of RadiumOne’s board of directors, none of whom responded to question about Chahal’s future as CEO.
They’re not the only ones not talking. In an unusual attempt to deflect the groundswell of calls for his dismissal on Thursday, Chahal himself took to Twitter to affirm his innocence, calling the charges “exaggerated” and “overblown,” and insisted that he was “cornered” into taking the plea deal. He also claimed to be a victim of a “political witch hunt” (some conservative publications have highlighted Chahal’s financial support of Democratic causes) and told those quick to believe the allegations to just “grow up.” By Friday morning, his tweets had been deleted.
His critics are not likely to go away, however. Chahal is quickly entering the realm of tech infamy occupied by Brendan Eich, who stepped down as CEO of Mozilla earlier this month amid criticism over a six-year-old contribution to an anti-gay-marriage initiative. While no shortage of commentators took note of the admittedly disturbing elements of Eich’s trial-by-Twitter-mob dismissal, some are saying the backlash against Chahal isn’t loud enough, at least not from within an insular tech community that has long been criticized as a walled-off boys’ club.
But calls for Chahal’s dismissal had only amplified by Friday afternoon, with angry tweets and Facebook posts pouring in by the second -- far too many for Chahal, or his financial backers, to delete or ignore.
Updated Sunday, 1:15 p.m.:
RadiumOne’s board voted to fire Chahal. The company issued the following statement on Sunday:
“At a board meeting yesterday evening, RadiumOne's board of directors voted to terminate the employment of Gurbaksh Chahal as CEO and Chairman of the company. Bill Lonergan, the company COO, will take over as CEO of the Company immediately. Bill has an extraordinary professional background and has helped build Blue Lithium and RadiumOne into industry leading brands. We are confident he will continue Radium One’s impressive trajectory.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Chahal's age. It is 31.