Fox Is Said to Settle With Former Contributor Over Sexual Assault Claims

Emily Steel

Roger Ailes, then-chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Television Stations.
Fred Prouser | Reuters

Last summer, as it wrapped up multiple settlements after the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandal, Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, were trying hard to end the ugliest chapter in its 20-year history.

The downfall of Mr. Ailes, the former chairman and chief executive, had exposed a newsroom culture that many women there called hostile and demeaning. 21st Century Fox ordered an internal investigation and stated publicly that "behavior that disrespects women" would not be tolerated.

Nearly eight months later, the company finds itself still dealing with fallout from that crisis. In late February, 21st Century Fox reached a settlement worth more than $2.5 million with a former Fox News contributor who reported that she was sexually assaulted by an executive at company headquarters two years ago, according to people briefed on the agreement.

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Tamara Holder, a former Fox News contributor, in Chicago, Oct. 19, 2016.
Lyndon French | The New York Times

The contributor, Tamara N. Holder, has said that the network executive tried to force her to perform oral sex on him in February 2015 when the two were alone in his office, according to interviews with four people briefed on her account, and documents that detail her claims. Ms. Holder did not immediately report the episode to the company or the police, fearing that doing so would ruin her career, interviews and documents show.

Ms. Holder reported her allegations to Fox News last fall. The network investigated her claims, and the executive, Francisco Cortes, the vice president for Fox News Latino, was terminated, according to two people familiar with the matter. Ms. Holder left Fox News after her contract expired on January 1, 2017.

Jay Sanchez, a lawyer for Mr. Cortes, said Wednesday night in an email: "I am presently considering Mr. Cortes' legal options." Multiple attempts to reach Mr. Cortes by phone, by email, on social media and in person for comment were unsuccessful.

In a rare public disclosure on Wednesday, Fox News released a joint statement with Ms. Holder saying that in September 2016 she "reported an incident of sexual assault at Fox News headquarters from the prior year."

"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 continued. "Fox News is grateful to Ms. Holder for her many contributions during her tenure at the network and wishes her continued success."

In an email, Ms. Holder said: "Yes, I was sexually assaulted. Immediately after I told the company where I worked about the incident, it promptly investigated the matter and took action, which I appreciate."

In the months since Mr. Ailes's departure, 21st Century Fox has struck agreements with several women who made sexual harassment complaints about Mr. Ailes and others at the network. They include a $20 million settlement with Gretchen Carlson, whose lawsuit against Mr. Ailes in July led to his ouster; a deal with Juliet Huddy, a longtime Fox News personality who made sexual harassment claims against the network's top-rated host, Bill O'Reilly; and now the agreement with Ms. Holder, who had been a legal and political analyst at Fox News since 2010.

Mr. Ailes and Mr. O'Reilly have denied the sexual harassment claims against them.

Adding to the challenges facing Fox is the prospect of a criminal investigation into the network's settlement payments, an inquiry disclosed in a court hearing last month by the lawyer for a former Fox employee suing the company. Fox News has said it had not received a subpoena but had "been in communication with the U.S. attorney's office for months."

Ms. Holder's story provides a look at the struggles a woman can face when deciding whether to make accusations against an executive. Multiple lawyers, who typically take a third of negotiated settlements, told her that her case had little value because she was not a big star, like Ms. Carlson, and her claims were against a lesser-known executive, rather than a powerful figure like Mr. Ailes, the people briefed on her account said.

"I was told by agents and lawyers that if I opened up, I would forever be 'toxic' and my career would be over," Ms. Holder said in an email. "I worked hard and loved my job but I could not be speechless. I had to turn my fear into courage."

Ms. Holder faced much anxiety about whether she should report her claims, the people said.

The people who spoke about Ms. Holder's account and her agreement insisted on anonymity because the negotiations and the settlement were private.

Ms. Holder, 37, worked as a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer in Chicago before she started as a contributor at Fox News in 2010. Over the years, she provided legal analysis and left-leaning political commentary. She appeared on Sean Hannity's show and also started a digital show for Fox News called "Sports Court" about legal and political issues in sports. She also performs stand-up comedy.

After Mr. Ailes's ouster, Ms. Holder decided to come forward with her claims. In late September 2016, Ms. Holder told Dianne Brandi, the top lawyer at Fox News who long worked under Mr. Ailes, that she had been sexually assaulted, but did not state who was involved or provide details of what had occurred, according to the people briefed on her account and documents viewed by The New York Times.

Ms. Holder was offered $300,000 in severance, equal to about one year of her contract, the interviews and documents show. She rejected the offer. Fox News executives tried to determine what had happened so that they could investigate the allegations.

In late October, she disclosed the details of her claims to Fox News executives. Fox News investigated, and days later Mr. Cortes was terminated, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

Ms. Holder has said that Mr. Cortes, who was close with Mr. Ailes, invited her into his office, shut the door, then poured shots of tequila for each of them, according to a document drafted by Ms. Holder's lawyers that outlines her claims. A copy of the document was viewed by The Times.

Ms. Holder has said that Mr. Cortes then got out of his chair, approached her chair, held the door shut with his left hand and used his right hand to push her mouth toward his penis, which he had taken out of his pants, according to the document. Ms. Holder fled the room.

That description of the episode was confirmed by the four people who were told of Ms. Holder's allegations.

Ms. Holder has said that she did not report the incident to Fox News previously because her earlier requests to meet with executives had been dismissed, because she did not know anyone in the human resources department and because executives had admonished her previously when she had complained about other issues, according to the documents and interviews. That included an on-air dispute with Omarosa Manigault, the reality-televison star, during Maria Bartiromo's show on Fox Business.

In the months that followed, Ms. Holder retained a lawyer. She struggled with accepting the confidentiality strictures that are common in workplace settlements and considered taking the case to trial or writing a book about her experiences, the people said.

In the end, the settlement included the joint public statement issued Wednesday. Beyond that, and the emails she was permitted to send, she is prohibited from discussing her claims, the settlement and anything related to Fox News, the people briefed on the agreement said.

"Moving forward, I hope that my 'toxicity' has transformed into authenticity and that my career is not over," Ms. Holder said in an email. "I hope that every man, woman, and child who has been sexually assaulted, or a victim of any crime for that matter, comes to the realization that they have not done anything wrong; they are not toxic."

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.