Five women received payouts totalling $13M to not pursue sexual harassment claims against Bill O’Reilly

For nearly two decades, Bill O’Reilly has been Fox News’ top asset, building the No. 1 program in cable news for a that has pulled in billions of dollars in revenues for its parent company, 21st Century Fox.

Behind the scenes, the company has repeatedly stood by O’Reilly as he faced a series of allegations of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior.

An investigation by The New York Times has found a total of five women who have received payouts from either O’Reilly or the company in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their accusations against him. The agreements totalled about $13 million.

Two settlements came after the network’s former chairman, Roger Ailes, was dismissed last summer in the wake of a sexual , when the company said it did not tolerate behavior that “disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment.”

Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Lucas Jackson / ReutersRoger Ailes

The women who made allegations against O’Reilly either worked for him or appeared on his show. They have complained about a wide range of behavior, including verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if O’Reilly was masturbating, according to documents and interviews.

The reporting suggests a pattern: As an influential figure in the newsroom, O’Reilly would create a bond with some women by offering advice and promising to help them professionally. He then would pursue sexual relationships with them, causing some to fear that if they rebuffed him, their careers would stall.

Of the five settlements, two were previously known — one for about $9 million in 2004 with a producer, and another struck last year with a former on-air personality, which The Times reported on in January. The Times has learned new details related to those cases.

The three other settlements were uncovered by The Times. Two involved sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly, and the other was for verbal abuse related to an episode in which he berated a young producer in front of newsroom colleagues.

AP Photo/Peter Kramer, file
AP Photo/Peter Kramer, fileThis Sept. 22, 2010 file photo shows Comedy Central's Jon Stewart from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," left, and and political pundit Bill O'Reilly during an interview for "The O'Reilly Factor" on FOX News Channel, in New York. O'Reilly and Jon Stewart face off for a special 90-minute debate about the 2012 presidential race. The live debate will be streamed online on Oct. 6, 2012 from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The price is $4.95, with one-half of the profits donated to a number of unspecified charities.

Besides the women who reached settlements, two other women have spoken of inappropriate behavior by the host. A former regular guest on his show, Wendy Walsh, told The Times that after she rebuffed an advance from him, he didn’t follow through on a verbal offer to secure her a lucrative position at the network. And a former Fox News host named Andrea Tantaros said O’Reilly sexually harassed her in a lawsuit she filed last summer against the network and Ailes.

Representatives for 21st Century Fox would not discuss specific accusations against O’Reilly, but in a written statement to The Times, the company acknowledged it had addressed the issue with him.

“21st Century Fox takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously,” the statement said. “Notwithstanding the fact that no or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously, we have looked into these matters over the last few months and discussed them with Mr. O’Reilly. While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility. Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News.”

According to legal experts, companies occasionally settle disputes that they believe have little merit because it is less risky than taking the matters to trial, which can be costly and create a string of embarrassing headlines.

I feel bad that some of these old guys are using mating that were in the 1950s and are not now

The revelations about O’Reilly, 67, come after sexual harassment accusations against Ailes led to an internal investigation that found women at Fox News faced harassment. Current and former Fox News employees told The Times that they feared making complaints to network executives or department.

Ailes, who has denied the allegations against him, received $40 million as part of his exit package. The company has reached settlements with at least six women who accused Ailes of sexual harassment, according to a person briefed on the agreements.

At the time of Ailes’ departure, 21st Century Fox’s top executives, James and Lachlan , the sons of the executive chairman, Rupert Murdoch, said the company was committed to “maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.”

Since then, the company has struck two settlements involving O’Reilly and learned of one O’Reilly reached secretly in 2011. 

Details on the allegations against O’Reilly and the company’s handling of them are based on more than five dozen interviews with current and former employees of Fox News and its former and current parent companies, News Corp. and 21st Century Fox; representatives for the network; and people close to O’Reilly and the women. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing confidentiality agreements and fear of retaliation. The Times also examined more than 100 pages of documents and court filings related to the complaints.

Walsh, the on O’Reilly’s show, said his offer to make her a contributor never materialized after she declined an invitation to go to his hotel suite after a in 2013. “I feel bad that some of these old guys are using mating strategies that were acceptable in the 1950s and are not acceptable now,” she said. “I hope young men can learn from this.”

She said romantic relationships at the workplace “should never happen when there is an imbalance of power and colleagues shouldn’t unwittingly be manipulated into obtaining sex for somebody.”

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_vPKdNucsY&w=640&h=390]

Just over a week ago, O’Reilly hired crisis communications expert Mark Fabiani — who worked in the Clinton White House — to respond to The Times. In a statement, O’Reilly that his prominence made him a target.

“Just like other prominent and controversial people,” the statement read, “I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity. In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline.

Fredric S. Newman, a lawyer for O’Reilly, said in a statement Friday evening, “We are now seriously considering legal action to defend Mr. O’Reilly’s reputation.”

Fox News has been aware of complaints about inappropriate behavior by O’Reilly since at least 2002, when O’Reilly stormed into the newsroom and screamed at a young producer, according to current and former employees, some of whom witnessed the incident.

Shortly thereafter, the woman, Rachel Witlieb Bernstein, left the network with a payout and bound by a confidentiality agreement, people familiar with the deal said. The exact amount she was paid is not known, but it was far less than the other settlements. The case did not involve sexual harassment.

Handout
HandoutDr. Wendy Walsh

Two years later, allegations about O’Reilly entered the public arena in lurid fashion when a producer on his show, Andrea Mackris, then 33, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. In the suit, she said he had told her to buy a vibrator, called her at times when it sounded as if he was masturbating and described sexual fantasies involving her. Mackris had recorded some of the conversations, people familiar with the case said.

Mackris also said in the suit that O’Reilly, who was married at the time (he and his wife divorced in 2011), threatened her, saying he would make any woman who complained about his behavior “pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born.”

Fox News and O’Reilly adopted an aggressive strategy that served as a stark warning of what could happen to women if they came forward with complaints, current and former employees told The Times.

Before Mackris filed suit, Fox News and O’Reilly surprised her with a pre-emptive suit of their own, asserting she was seeking to extort $60 million in return for not going public with “scandalous and scurrilous” claims about him.

After two weeks of sensational headlines, the two sides settled, and  O’Reilly agreed to pay Mackris about $9 million, according to people briefed on the agreement. The parties agreed to issue a public statement that “no wrongdoing whatsoever” had occurred.

In the years that followed, O’Reilly and Fox News dealt with sexual harassment allegations in private, striking agreements with three more women.

In 2011, Rebecca Gomez Diamond, who had hosted a show on the Fox Business Network — also supervised by Ailes — was told the network was not renewing her contract. Similar to Mackris, she had recorded conversations with O’Reilly, according to people familiar with the case. Armed with the recordings, her lawyers went to the company and outlined her complaints against him.

Diamond left the network, bound by a confidentiality agreement, and O’Reilly paid the settlement, two of the people said. The exact amount of the payout is not known.

Although that deal was made nearly six years ago, Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, learned of it only in late 2016 when it conducted an investigation into Fox News under Ailes’ tenure, according to another person familiar with the matter.

In the aftermath of Ailes’ ouster last summer, as 21st Century Fox was completing settlements and trying to put the scandal behind it, it reached deals with two women who had complained about sexual harassment by O’Reilly.

YouTube / Heroes in Recovery
YouTube / Heroes in Recovery Lauren Dhue

One was Laurie Dhue, a Fox News anchor from 2000 to 2008. Although Dhue had not raised sexual harassment issues during her tenure or upon her departure, her lawyers went to the company to outline her harassment claims against O’Reilly and Ailes, according to people briefed on the complaints. In response, 21st Century Fox reached a settlement with her for more than $1 million, according to a person briefed on the agreement.

In September, 21st Century Fox reached a settlement worth $1.6 million with Juliet Huddy, who had made regular appearances on O’Reilly’s show, according to people familiar with the matter. Huddy’s lawyers had told the company that O’Reilly pursued a sexual relationship in 2011, at a time he exerted significant influence over her airtime.

In January, when The Times and others reported on Huddy’s settlement, representatives for Fox News and O’Reilly dismissed the allegations.

Fox News is now in a legal battle with Tantaros, the former on-air personality who is suing the network and Ailes after turning down a settlement offer of nearly $1 million. O’Reilly is not a defendant, but in the suit, Tantaros said that in early 2016, O’Reilly had asked “her to come to stay with him on Long Island where it would be ‘very private,’” and told her “on more than one occasion that he could ‘see (her) as a wild girl,’” according to court documents.

In an affidavit filed under oath, Tantaros’ psychologist, Michele Berdy, who treated her from 2013 to 2016, said that she recalled “a number of occasions when Andrea complained to me about recurring unwanted advances from Bill O’Reilly.”

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
Slaven Vlasic/Getty ImagesBill O'Reilly, host of FOX's "The O'Reilly Factor" at FOX Studios on December 15, 2011 in New York City.

Fox News said it investigated Tantaros’ claims and found them baseless. The company explained her departure by saying she published a book that violated company policy. In court papers, the network said that she “is not a victim; she is an opportunist” and that her allegations bore “all the hallmarks of the wannabe.”

Walsh, the former guest on “The O’Reilly Factor,” told The Times she was propositioned by O’Reilly in 2013 but did not lodge a complaint because she did not want to harm her career prospects.

Walsh said that she met O’Reilly for a dinner, arranged by his secretary, at the restaurant in the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. During the dinner, she said, he told her he was friends with Ailes, and promised to make her a network contributor — a job that can pay several hundred thousand dollars a year.

After dinner, she said,  O’Reilly invited her to his hotel suite. Walsh said she declined. Trying to remain cordial, she suggested that they go to the hotel bar instead. Once there, she said, he became hostile, telling her that she could forget any career advice he had given her and that she was on her own. He also told her that her black leather purse was ugly.

Walsh continued to appear on his show for about four months, but she said she sensed that he had become cold toward her on camera. Then, a producer for “The O’Reilly Factor” told Walsh that she would no longer appear on the show. She was never made a contributor.

“I knew my hopes of a career at Fox News were in jeopardy after that evening,” said Walsh, now an adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Channel Islands, and a radio host at KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles.

A person briefed on the network’s decision said Walsh was removed from the broadcast because the program’s ratings declined during her segments.

At Fox News, O’Reilly has continued his dominance. In the months since the presidential election, as the network has pulled in record ratings, his show has averaged 3.9 million viewers a night, according to Nielsen. Since September, he has released three books, including one for children, adding to his growing publishing empire. And in February, O’Reilly landed a coveted interview with President Donald Trump before the Super Bowl.

O’Reilly was an early defender of Ailes and Fox News during that sexual harassment scandal last summer. His support remained resolute into the fall, after the company had reached agreements to settle the harassment claims from Huddy and Dhue. In November, he chided , his colleague at the time, after she described being sexually harassed by Ailes in her memoir.

“If somebody is paying you a wage, you owe that person or company allegiance,” he said on his nightly show, without mentioning Kelly by name. “You don’t like what’s happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave.”

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About Emily Steel And Michael S. Schmidt, The New York Times