The Roger Ailes sexual harassment story might be about to bite the Murdoch clan and its key media arm, Fox News and its owner, 21st Century Fox. According to claims made in a New York court overnight, the US Justice Department could be investigating the Fox News channel (owned by 21st Century Fox) in connection with the way Fox settled sexual harassment claims made against the former Fox News chief.

The claim is that the Justice Department is looking at whether Fox made confidential settlements without disclosing these to shareholders in 21st Century Fox (which include the Murdoch clan). Hollywood Reporter revealed the possible Justice Department investigation in a report on the case before the New York Supreme Court brought by former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros, a former co-host of the afternoon Fox News show The Five. In it she claims that Fox News “operated like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult”. 

In the hearing an attorney for Tantaros said he’s been served with a subpoena by federal prosecutors investigating sexual harassment allegations directed at Ailes:

“In the midst of the hearing over Tantaros’ lawsuit against Fox News executives, her attorney Judd Burstein said he received subpoenas from federal investigators at the Department of Justice’s New York Southern District. ‘Once I saw it, I knew what was happening,’ Burstein said. ‘They were investigating whether Fox News violated securities laws by not reporting settlements to the Securities and Exchange Commission.'”

The report said an attorney for Fox News, Andrew J. Levander, said Burstein’s impromptu comments in open court were “beyond the pale”. 

Fox News said in a statement to Crikey: ““The court granted FOX News’ motion to send Andrea Tantaros’ case to arbitration, where it always belonged, and rejected her counsel Judd Burstein’s histrionics. Apparently one of Mr. Burstein’s other clients has received a subpoena. Neither FOX News nor 21CF has received a subpoena, but we have been in communication with the U.S. Attorney’s office for months — we have and will continue to cooperate on all inquiries with any interested authorities.”

Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson received an undisclosed amount (believed to be US$20 million) from 21st Century Fox to settle her sexual harassment claim against Ailes personally. She was one of a dozen or more women to have come forward with claims of harassment by Ailes. The latest was last December. Tantaros is one of those.

Another was very-high profile then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly. Her disclosures are widely credited with forcing the Murdochs to remove Ailes and pay him a reported US$40 million to walk the plank. Kelly subsequently left Fox to join NBC, reportedly for US$20 million a year. There have been a number of stories of confidential settlements made with a number of former Fox News female employees (on and off air) — with sums not made public.

These could be the subject of the government probe mentioned in the New York courtroom. — Glenn Dyer