Fox News said Friday that its general counsel will take an unspecified leave of absence from the company, in the latest sign of fallout from the network’s long-running sexual harassment scandal.
Dianne Brandi, who has been named in four lawsuits filed by former Fox employees or contributors alleging harassment, will take the unexpected leave.
“Dianne Brandi is taking voluntary leave,” Fox News said in a statement issued Friday.
Fox’s statement did not explain why Brandi is leaving.
Brandi, however, appears to be under considerable legal pressure. In addition to the lawsuits, a federal investigation into Fox News’ financial practices began to focus last week on her role during the long tenure of its co-founder and former chairman, Roger Ailes, people close to the investigation told The Washington Post. Investigators are looking into payments made under Ailes to employees who had accused him and other executives of harassment or mistreatment.
Brandi is also a defendant in suits brought by current and former Fox employees, including those by on-air personalities Julie Roginsky and Andrea Tantaros. All of the suits allege that Brandi failed to investigate harassment complaints or didn’t take action in response to complaints about a hostile work environment.
Attorneys from the Department of Justice’s southern district of Manhattan made inquiries at Fox about Brandi, though it was not clear to whom they spoke or their specific line of questioning.
Federal attorneys have been looking into the manner in which Fox, under Ailes, reported a series of severance payments and cash settlements to people who’d made harassment allegations against Ailes and other top executives, or had otherwise run afoul of him.
Brandi has not commented on the probe, but Fox has asserted her innocence previously.
The question at the heart of the investigation is whether Fox and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, committed securities fraud by hiding or disguising these payments on their books in violation of an obligation to disclose “material” financial events to investors.
Brandi could prove to be a key figure in the investigation because of her long and close association with Ailes, who was ousted from Fox last year amid harassment allegations and died in May. She may have direct knowledge of some of his more secretive and allegedly sinister management practices, people who are involved in the investigation said.
The government investigation, which began in January, has a delicate political context because it involves Fox, whose chairman, Rupert Murdoch, is a powerful ally and sometime adviser of President Trump. Fox News and 21st Century Fox are both controlled by Murdoch and his family. Some of Fox’s programs and commentators have been boosters of Trump’s candidacy and presidency, particularly prime-time host Sean Hannity and the morning program “Fox and Friends.”
People close to the investigation said it appeared to have gone dormant after Ailes' death. But federal attorneys starting asking questions about Brandi in late September, indicating that the probe was still alive.
Fox referred questions about the investigation to 21st Century Fox, whose spokesman, Nathaniel Brown, declined comment this week.
Prosecutors have been working with Fox’s former chief finanical officer, Mark Kranz, under a grant of immunity from prosecution, to get to the bottom of Ailes’ financial arrangements with people who made harassment claims.
Among the latter are Laurie Luhn, a former Fox booking and special events coordinator, who said she had engaged in a romantic relationship with Ailes for many years.
In comments to The Washington Post earlier this year and to other media organizations, Luhn said Ailes harassed her and subjected her to “psychological torture” for years. The network’s executives then engaged in efforts designed to keep her from speaking about her experiences, she said, including moving her to a psychiatric care facility in Texas against her wishes.
She eventually agreed to a settlement with Fox in which she was paid $3.15 million, an agreement she said was signed by Brandi. One of her settlement checks was signed by a corporate executive based in Los Angeles who had no direct involvement with Fox News, according to people who spoke about the investigation anonymously because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record.
In addition to Kranz and Luhn, prosecutors have also spoken to Brian Lewis, who headed Fox’s communications team for years and was a close ally of Ailes until a falling out in 2014. Lewis was paid more than $8 million as severance when he left the company, and government attorneys have investigated how these funds were structured and disclosed. Lewis declined comment.
One issue in the investigation is whether Fox properly disclosed this payment and others that Ailes apparently arranged to resolve internal disputes.
Luhn, who has previously said she spoke with investigators in May, declined to discuss the issue further last week.
Ailes was pushed out in July 2016 after former Fox host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against him, triggering a series of complaints against Ailes by women who had worked for him. Carlson later settled with Fox for $20 million.