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Ex-executive says he was ‘scapegoat’ for Fox News sexual harassment in $48 million lawsuit

Bill O’Reilly, left, with Roger Ailes in 2003. (Washington Post)

The ongoing mess at Fox News — where a frat house atmosphere has triggered a series of high profile exits and legal actions stemming from sexual harassment — took an additional turn this week.

An ousted Fox executive has fired back at the network, charging in a 54-page lawsuit filed in New York that the network used him as a “scapegoat” in order to polish up its own damaged image.

Former Fox News vice president Francisco Cortes claims the network purposely commented on the harassment settlement between Cortes and ex-Fox contributor Tamara Holder in order to “demonstrate that it aggressively handles sexual harassment complaints,” the complaint states.

According to the defendant, the move was geared toward moving the network beyond the scandal stemming from rampant harassment allegations that toppled giants Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief who died in May, and Bill O’Reilly.

The suit, filed against Twenty-First Century Fox America and two John Does, is seeking $48 million in damages.

The brainchild of network head Ailes, Fox News Latino went live in October 2010 with Cortes at the helm. A Puerto Rican-born U.S. Army vet, Cortes was the first person selected for the network’s “Roger Ailes Apprenticeship Program,” and was the first Latino VP in the company’s news division, according to a 2016 profile in Jersey Bound Latino Magazine.

But the entire Fox News ecosystem was upset last year following allegations about Ailes’s sexual harassment, first lobbed at the powerful media figure in a lawsuit filed by anchor Gretchen Carlson. Following similar allegations from Megyn Kelly and 18 other female Fox employees, Fox’s parent company forced Ailes out in 2016. Instead of ending the scandal, however, Ailes’ departure unleashed further allegations and firings, with figures like co-president Bill Shine, Fox Business host Charles Payne and ratings-heavyweight Bill O’Reilly all leaving the company.

Amid the scandal, the New York Times reported in March that Fox News’ parent company had reached a $2.5 million settlement with Holder, an attorney and on-air contributor. According to the paper, Holder had informed the network that in February 2015, Cortes had tried to force her to perform oral sex on him in his office. In response to the Times’s article, both Fox and Holder released a joint statement saying Cortes had been fired after the company learned about and investigated Holder’s claim in early 2016.

“Immediately after Ms. Holder notified Fox News of the alleged incident, the company promptly investigated the matter and took decisive action, for which Ms. Holder thanks the network,” the statement to the Times said. “Fox News is grateful to Ms. Holder for her many contributions during her tenure at the network and wishes her continued success.”

Cortes’s recent lawsuit alleges a different set of facts. First, the former executive says his relationship with Holder was consensual, an assertion he claims he can prove with evidence, including “emails, text messages, with photos, and other supporting documentation,” the complaint says.

While denying the allegations, Cortes says he signed a settlement agreement between the network, Holder and himself “to avoid further damage to his career and his family” and as the only way to “cement Ms. Tamara Holder’s obligation not to continue to disparage him.”

That contract was broken, Cortes alleges, when Holder and Fox issued their joint statement about the case following the settlement. This was all an effort to use Cortes as a “scapegoat,” his suit alleges. By pointing to the swift action with Holder’s allegations, Fox could “demonstrate that it aggressively handles sexual harassment complaints.”

Cortes says this was all part “of a carefully orchestrated plan” by the Fox-controlling Murdoch family to rehabilitate the network’s reputation in advance of the Murdoch’s $15.2 billion bid to for the U.K.’s Sky television.

Although Holder is not named in Cortes’s lawsuit, two unnamed Fox News executives are listed with the parent company in the complaint. The higher-ups also signed the Holder agreement, but Cortes signed a copy with the names redacted, his complaint says, and he still doesn’t know their identity. The executives, the suit says, “it must be assumed, were, unlike Mr. Cortes, not Latino, and not financially insignificant to Fox.”

Responding to the lawsuit, a Fox News representative told the L.A. Times the allegations were “frivolous and without merit.”

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