Fresh Lawsuit Against Ailes Slams Fox News' Response To Harassment Claims

Apr 3, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 3:13 pm

Updated at 1 p.m. ET

A lawsuit filed on Monday morning by a paid political commentator for the Fox News Channel alleges the network's past chairman, Roger Ailes, made unwanted sexual advances while leading her to believe that a big promotion would follow.

The suit says Ailes encouraged Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky to date older, married men, repeatedly praised her looks and sought to get her to join him for drinks, even in his office, away from prying eyes that could get them "into so much trouble."

Roginsky spurned the advances, according to the lawsuit, and as a result never received the promotion to become host of the popular early evening program The Five.

Roginsky's depiction of life at Fox News even after Ailes' ouster last summer at the height of a sexual harassment scandal suggests a far cry from the changed corporate culture promised by the Murdoch family, which controls 21st Century Fox. Patriarch Rupert Murdoch has led Fox News since Ailes was felled by fallout from the lawsuit by former host Gretchen Carlson that triggered the scandal.

Roginsky's suit adds to the list of sexual harassment allegations against Ailes, which also includes those made by former Fox News journalists Megyn Kelly and Laurie Dhue. Through his lawyers, Ailes has denied all the previous allegations to date.

Perhaps more troublingly for Fox News and its corporate parent, 21st Century Fox, Roginsky also accuses the network's current president, Bill Shine; its longtime top lawyer, Dianne Brandi; and other senior executives of complicity in Ailes' harassment and of punishing her for raising the issue.

In a statement emailed to NPR, Ailes' lawyer Susan Estrich called Roginsky's descriptions of meetings with her client "total hogwash."

"The idea that Mr. Ailes would pressure Ms. Roginsky or any other women to have sexual relations with him is total nonsense," the statement reads. "This is about someone who wants to pile-on in a massive character assassination in order to achieve what she did not accomplish on the merits."

NPR is seeking comment from Fox News, 21st Century Fox, Shine and Brandi in response to the allegations in Roginsky's suit.

Another in a long list of complaints about Fox

Roginsky's allegations arrive as new attention is being given to similar accusations against Fox News' brightest star, Bill O'Reilly. The right-of-center opinion host and Fox News have made payments totaling roughly $13 million over a dozen years to settle complaints that he harassed female former co-workers, according to The New York Times.

Suspended Fox News host Andrea Tantaros has also filed suit, citing what she says was sexual harassment by Ailes and O'Reilly. She alleges that Shine also failed to take her complaints seriously. All three men deny her claims.

Though some of O'Reilly's offending remarks were captured on tape, he has repeatedly insisted he is a target for wrongful accusations because of his wealth and success. O'Reilly has said he only settles complaints to ensure his children do not have to endure public scorn.

The enduring presence of O'Reilly on Fox's prized 8 p.m. ET slot, despite that history, has led some critics to dismiss the commitment of Shine and Brandi to combating sexual harassment and even to question why they retain their posts.

Roginsky's suit is likely to fuel those critics further.

"Shine retaliated against plaintiff because of her complaints of harassment and retaliation [against Ailes]," the lawsuit reads, "and because of plaintiff's refusal to malign Gretchen Carlson and join 'Team Roger' when Carlson sued Ailes ... Shine also aided and abetted Ailes' acts of retaliation and harassment."

Fox News promised to change the culture

Roginsky said in the complaint that Shine and Brandi took no action to investigate her allegations that Ailes had harassed her once they learned of his behavior toward her. The company had put new policies in place and hired an outside law firm to lead an inquiry into the mounting accusations against Ailes, but did not pursue her accusations, according to the lawsuit.

Such concerns first arose at Fox well before last summer. In 2011, Shine and Brandi played a role in arranging a $3 million settlement with a former Fox News senior booker and events planner, Laurie Luhn, who alleged Ailes had blackmailed and harassed her into performing sexual acts for more than 20 years. They said they did not believe Luhn's claims at that time.

In this case, Roginsky alleges, Ailes' former top deputies sought to forestall criticism and any legal exposure for the network.

Roginsky is a 43-year-old single mother who has advised and worked for such leading New Jersey Democrats as Sen. Cory Booker, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg and the former senator and Gov. Jon Corzine. She joined Fox News formally in fall 2011 after seven years of appearing regularly as an unpaid commentator, the lawsuit states.

In her suit, Roginsky alleges that Ailes repeatedly invoked the prospect of elevating her from a contributor's job to be a permanent host on The Five. She contends she merited the promotion given her performance and the ratings when she appeared on the show.

Such a perch at Fox would have given Roginsky greater visibility, likely increasing her pay from Fox News significantly into the upper six figures and also propelling an increase in possible outside revenues such as book contracts or speaking fees.

Ailes routinely steered such conversations about Roginsky's career to her personal life, her looks and his desire to see her socially, she alleges.

The issue came to a head in a meeting in late April 2015, according to the lawsuit, after Ailes said loyalty had to be a two-way street. Ailes led Roginsky to believe she would get the one slot for a liberal commentator previously held by The Five host Bob Beckel. Ailes confided to Roginsky that Beckel would not return to Fox because of substance abuse problems, the suit states. (Two months later Fox cited substance abuse in firing Beckel, who has spoken openly about his past addiction to alcohol and drugs.)

"Ailes cynically toyed with Roginsky, saying that he would really like to give her a permanent spot on 'The Five,'" the lawsuit states. "Immediately after this statement, Ailes remarked that 'if it wouldn't get us both into so much trouble' he would take Roginsky 'out for a drink.' "

According to the suit, Ailes continued: "Since being seen in public together would get us into trouble, maybe we could just do it privately in my office instead, so no one would know."

Roginsky alleges that when she conveyed she did not think that was a good idea, Ailes shut down any further talk of a promotion. The suit says Ailes refused ever to meet with Roginsky again and pulled her from guest appearances on The Five.

Fox News claimed to have changed its climate

Beyond the allegations against Ailes, Roginsky's suit contradicts the representation by Fox News and parent company 21st Century Fox that the network has changed its climate for its female employees since the departure of Ailes under duress last July.

Carlson ultimately received a $20 million settlement and a rare public apology issued by Lachlan and James Murdoch, who together with their father lead 21st Century Fox. (Roginsky hired the same legal team used by Carlson, led by New Jersey workplace law attorney Nancy Erika Smith.)

Unlike Carlson, Roginsky has no clause in her contract requiring she settle disputes in binding and confidential arbitration.

Executives pressured Roginsky to join other prominent Fox News personalities on what they called "Team Roger" to denigrate and discredit Carlson publicly. Greta Van Susteren, Geraldo Rivera, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Jeanine Pirro were among those who cast doubt on Carlson's story. (Van Susteren later left the network and apologized to Carlson; Rivera also apologized.)

At the Republican National Convention last July, according to the lawsuit, as Ailes' professional fate hung in the balance, Fox News contributor Angela McGlowan told Roginsky that "it's all hands on deck" in defending Ailes. Roginsky alleges she told McGlowan, a former lobbyist for the Murdochs' media empire who served as a conduit to Fox News executives, that she believed Carlson's allegations and could not participate in a campaign against her because Ailes had harassed her, too.

When Roginsky and Shine met in late July, the longtime programming chief for Ailes was agitated, telling her that "everything they are saying about Roger is true," as Roginsky's lawyer recounts the meeting in court papers.

She was passed over for a hosting job on the midday show Outnumbered. In late November, Roginsky told Shine and his deputy, Suzanne Scott, that she awaited the fulfillment of Ailes' earlier promise to host a show.

No such job emerged. Instead, according to the suit, Shine praised a recent documentary, comparing the chemistry of the team that built Fox News to that of the rock group the Eagles.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Just today, another woman has filed a harassment lawsuit against Fox News and its former chairman, Roger Ailes. She is Julie Roginsky. She's an on-air contributor at the network. And she alleges that Ailes sexually harassed her and that she faced retaliation from Fox News's current president and its top lawyer. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik broke the story and joins us now from our New York studios. Hey there.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey there.

MCEVERS: So we have to first remember that Ailes was forced to leave last year because of allegations by other women who worked for Fox News. What does Julie Roginsky say that Ailes did?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in many ways her allegations track closely to those that were made by Gretchen Carlson last summer in the initial lawsuit that ultimately led to Ailes's ouster by his bosses at 21st Century Fox. Roginsky said that Ailes effectively offered her a job as host of the popular early evening show "The Five" which would have been a big bump in pay and profile and also in prospects to make more money off the air. But he connected those conversations with talk about her personal life, surprised that she was still single, questions about who she was dating and, you know, urging her to date - according to the lawsuit - older married conservative men, which is a demographic that precisely fits a guy named Roger Ailes himself.

When she declined to have a private drink with him away from the eyes of others, which he said might get them in so much trouble, he stopped the conversation. He never talked to her about a job again and, in fact, never agreed to meet with her one more time.

MCEVERS: In her lawsuit, Roginsky also has allegations against other top executives at Fox News. What are those?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, she alleges that when Fox News President Bill Shine, a longtime deputy to Ailes, and when the network's long-time general counsel chief lawyer Dianne Brandi became aware of her complaints about Ailes' behavior, they did nothing to investigate it. They did nothing to encourage her to submit to, you know, human resources review or to an inquiry that had been set up with an outside law firm by the Murdoch family, which controls the parent company to Fox News.

So they said that basically they turned a blind eye to her allegations in terms of its substance and that they also then passed over her for jobs that she felt she was qualified for as retaliation for speaking up about her complaints and also for refusing to defend Ailes against the complaints of people like Gretchen Carlson.

MCEVERS: So much has gone right for Fox recently. They've got huge ratings now in the era of President Trump but yet this scandal's been going on for months. How far does it go?

FOLKENFLIK: We've got to think about all they're taking on. There have been so many women who have made these accusations against Roger Ailes, all of which, by the way, he denies, including earlier today Roginsky's allegations. But, you know, new scrutiny has been cast on the settlements that Bill O'Reilly and that Fox News has paid to women who have accused him of sexual harassment over the years. Those awards according to The New York Times have totaled $13 million.

And, you know, there's recently - the network fired its longtime comptroller, a senior financial official at the network, after they said they substantiated allegations that she had created a racially hostile workplace and been racially discriminatory against employees there.

MCEVERS: What does all this say about the oversight by Fox News's leadership team and by the Murdoch family that controls the parent company, 21st Century Fox?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, it's hard to believe if the Murdoch family were not the controlling owner of this publicly-traded corporation, 21st Century Fox, that Bill Shine, as the president, longtime deputy to Ailes, would still be there, that Dianne Brandi, the general counsel, would still be there. Questions have been raised about how some of those payments were done.

You know, right now there's a federal investigation involving a grand jury into whether or not the payments over the years to women who accused Roger Ailes of sexual harassment were masked in a way to hide it from investors. That could be a serious criminal offense if proven and validated, as well. So there are a lot of different ways in which the leadership at Fox News and at the parent company, 21st Century, Fox are called into question by this lawsuit and by the sequence and series of issues that are invoked by what's set out in those court papers.

MCEVERS: NPR's David Folkenflik, thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.