While Fox News was showing former chairman Roger Ailes the door for allegations of sexual harassment, it was working behind the scenes to hush similar accusations against its most famous on-air personality, Bill O’Reilly, according to a new report in the New York Times. On Tuesday, the Times reported that Fox paid former host and reporter Juliet Huddy “a sum in the high six figures … in exchange for her silence and agreement not to sue” over claims that O’Reilly pursued her sexually, and punished her for rebuffing him, between 2011 and 2013.
Huddy’s lawyers contacted the network in August, while a growing chorus of Ailes’ accusers were dominating the news, and reached an agreement with parent company 21st Century Fox on September 5, the day before Fox announced it had settled former anchor Gretchen Carlson’s suit against Ailes for $20 million. A letter from Huddy’s lawyers to the network, obtained by the Times, also alleges that one of Ailes’ replacements, Fox co-president Jack Abernethy, had propositioned Huddy, then taken to “trashing her” when she refused him. Abernethy signed a new, multi-year contract to lead the network within weeks of the company’s payout to Huddy.
O’Reilly, meanwhile, remains one of Fox’s most valuable assets: His show generated approximately $180 million in advertising revenue in 2015. Two more of his best-selling rightwing history books have also hit the stands since the summer. Fox’s women employees have accused O’Reilly before. His former producer Andrea Mackris sued him in 2004 for, among other things, relating his sexual exploits and fantasies, and repeatedly urging her to “just use your vibrator to blow off steam.” Former host Andrea Tantaros has also accused O’Reilly of unwanted overtures.
Huddy claims that O’Reilly began to pursue her in January 2011, when she was a regular guest on his show. According to the letter from her lawyers, he invited her to lunch and a tour of his Long Island home—then surprised her with an unwanted kiss on the lips when it was time to say goodbye.
“Ms. Huddy was so taken aback and repulsed that she instinctively recoiled and actually fell to the ground,” the letter recounts. “Mr. O’Reilly, looking amused, did not even help Ms. Huddy up.”
In the months that followed, Huddy claims that she tried to parry O’Reilly’s repeated advances without endangering her career. The week after their lunch on Long Island, when he invited her to dinner at the Harvard Club and a Broadway performance, “she felt compelled to comply,” according to the letter, “given that he had total control over her work assignment.”
Huddy alleges that, during the show, O’Reilly dropped a key to his hotel room into her lap, instructed her to meet him, and left the theater. According to the letter, Huddy repeatedly asked O’Reilly to retrieve the key from the lobby instead, explaining “that she was not interested in Mr. O’Reilly on a personal or sexual level,” but he refused to come down, and she ultimately went upstairs to return the key. According to the Times, the letter doesn’t entirely clarify why Huddy didn’t simply leave the key at the desk, but reports that O’Reilly met her at the door in nothing but boxer shorts, and she, “very embarrassed, handed Mr. O’Reilly his key and quickly left.”
In the months that followed, O’Reilly allegedly barraged Huddy with phone calls, according to the letter. Sometimes, it claims, the sounds from the other end led her to believe that he was masturbating—an accusation that also appeared in Mackris’ suit years before. When Huddy began screening O’Reilly’s calls, the letter says, he became highly critical of her work, and took to sabotaging her on-air, changing the angles of segments without warning. In 2013, one of Huddy’s regular segments on The O’Reilly Factor was canceled, and she was taken off another and replaced.
Fox, for its part, has denied that these changes constituted retaliation against Huddy, or that O’Reilly or Abernethy sexually harassed her. “The letter contains substantial falsehoods, which both men have vehemently denied,” spokeswoman Irena Briganti said in a statement. O’Reilly was similarly dismissive of Mackris’ suit in 2004, and Fox has waved off many of the recent allegations—including former host Tantaros’ claim that the network “operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult.” Still, each new accusation has seemed to trigger another, first about the network’s chairman, and now about its biggest star.