October 21, 2017 at 4:21 PM
Former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly secretly settled a sexual harassment allegation with a network contributor for $32 million — the largest, by far, of six such agreements that eventually toppled the outspoken commentator, according to a new report.
The New York Times said Bill O'Reilly agreed to the settlement in January with Lis Wiehl, a longtime legal analyst at Fox who had worked with O'Reilly and had once offered him legal advice.
Despite knowledge of a settlement with Wiehl, Fox renewed its contract with O'Reilly in February, paying him $25 million per year over four years, the paper said.
In a brief interview on Saturday following publication of the Times story, O'Reilly declined to discuss details of the settlement with Wiehl, citing a confidentiality agreement. But he said he agreed to settle "to protect my children from the horror" of continuing adverse publicity had Wiehl's allegations been litigated in court.
"That's it," O'Reilly said. "I knew if I took this to court there would be three years of unrelenting headlines. That's why I did it."
Wiehl alleged O'Reilly had repeatedly harassed her, had engaged in "a nonconsensual sexual relationship" with her, and had sent gay pornography and other sexually explicit material to her, the paper said.
O'Reilly spokesman Mark Fabiani released an affidavit on Saturday in which Wiehl acknowledged that O'Reilly forwarded her emails that had been sent to him, apparently while seeking legal advice from her about what to do about them.
"Additionally, over the years while I was acting as Bill O'Reilly's counsel, he forwarded to me certain explicit emails that were sent to him, and any advice sought or rendered is attorney-client privileged, confidential and private," she said in the affidavit, dated Jan. 17. "I have no claims against Bill O'Reilly concerning any of those emails or any of the allegations in the draft complaint."
Wiehl also said in the affidavit, "We have since resolved all of our issues" and that she would "no longer make the allegations" contained in a draft complaint against O'Reilly that she had drawn up months before.
Fabiani confirmed that Wiehl signed the affidavit after reaching a monetary settlement with O'Reilly. He also declined to comment on the size of the settlement paid to Wiehl, saying both O'Reilly and Wiehl were bound by a confidentiality agreement.
In a statement, Fabiani said the affidavit repudiates "all allegations" against O'Reilly. "The Times ignored that evidence, sworn under oath, and chose to rely on unsubstantiated allegations, anonymous sources and incomplete leaked or stolen documents," he wrote.
Fabiani said 21st Century had paid out "close to $100 million" to "dozens of women" who had alleged harassment by other men at the network. Fox re-signed O'Reilly earlier this year, he wrote, "after the company had analyzed and considered all the allegations against him."
Times editor Dean Baquet, responding to Fabiani on Saturday, disputed his characterization of the newspaper's reporting. "Mr. Fabiani, as often, addresses everything but what the story actually says," Baquet said in an email. "This article like the others is accurate and deeply reported and we welcome any challenge to the facts."
O'Reilly was fired in April by Fox News's parent company, 21st Century Fox, after the Times revealed that he had settled with five former colleagues who had alleged harassment by him over more than a decade. Neither Fox nor 21st Century acknowledged the settlement with Wiehl at the time O'Reilly was fired.
If the Times's figure is accurate, the latest settlement exceeds all of the previous agreements between O'Reilly and his accusers. The five agreements reportedly amounted to $13 million, and included a 2004 payment by O'Reilly to a former Fox producer named Andrea Mackris for $9 million.
O'Reilly personally paid two of these five settlements. Fox News paid the other three.
Fox re-signed O'Reilly — the most popular figure in cable news — about seven months after a sexual harassment scandal involving its chairman and co-founder, Roger Ailes, exploded in July of 2016. At the time, the company had undertaken internal steps to root out and address complaints of employee harassment. 21st Century's top executives, James and Lachlan Murdoch — the sons of Fox News co-founder Rupert Murdoch — had publicly pledged to improve the workplace culture at Fox.
Nevertheless, the Murdochs decided to re-sign O'Reilly, despite being aware of his history of settlements, including the one with Wiehl only a month before they began contract renewal talks. O'Reilly was not only the network's marquee attraction, but his program was the single largest source of advertising revenue for Fox News, which is the most consistent profit center for 21st Century.
Ultimately, the Murdochs ousted O'Reilly after the initial Times report appeared in April, triggering an advertiser exodus from his program, "The O'Reilly Factor." The new round of harassment allegations also seemed to threaten British approval of 21st Century's multibillion-dollar purchase of Sky Broadcasting, a British-based satellite service.
The Murdochs subsequently booted Fox News's president Bill Shine, who succeeded Ailes. Shine has been named as a defendant in several lawsuits by former Fox contributors and staffers.
Wiehl appeared regularly on O'Reilly's program for 15 years, and said in her affidavit that she had worked with him, socialized with him and offered legal advice over an 18-year period.