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Ex-staffer sues Fox News and former Trump aide over sexual abuse claims

Former Fox News staffer Laura Luhn sued the network yesterday alleging years of sexual abuse by its former chairman, the late Roger Ailes. Ailes is shown above in July 2016 outside Fox's New York City headquarters shortly before his ouster.
Drew Angerer
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Former Fox News staffer Laura Luhn sued the network yesterday alleging years of sexual abuse by its former chairman, the late Roger Ailes. Ailes is shown above in July 2016 outside Fox's New York City headquarters shortly before his ouster.

Note: This story contains content that may prove upsetting for some readers.

Former Fox News staffer Laura Luhn helped seal the late Roger Ailes' reputation after his resignation as the network's chairman in July 2016 when she publicly alleged that he had sexually abused her for two decades and blackmailed her into becoming his "sex slave."

On Wednesday, Luhn filed suit in a New York state court against Fox News, its parent company, and former Fox News president Bill Shine, saying the network was complicit in controlling her personal life and blaming the abuse for the psychological and physical toll she has suffered since.

Her suit cites the new Adult Survivors Act, passed last fall by the New York state legislature, that lifted the statute of limitations on sexual assault claims for a year. Shine left the network in 2017 and became White House communications director for then President Donald Trump. His departure was part of an ongoing purge of executives and stars amid a crush of sexual harassment allegations there.

"Shine and many other executives knew of and enabled the abuse, which ultimately caused severe despair and devastation for Luhn," states the lawsuit filed by her legal team. "Any attempt to come forward with Ailes' abuse would have been at best fruitless and at worst devastating to Luhn's safety, career, financial situation, personal friendships, family relationships and public reputation."

At a time of significant legal peril, Fox News rejects new lawsuit as "meritless"

Her suit also names Fox News Media chief executive Suzanne Scott as one of the numerous executives aware of the abuse Ailes inflicted upon her. In a written statement, Fox News Media dismissed the seriousness of the claim. "This matter was settled years ago, dismissed in subsequent litigation, and is meritless," the statement says. Shine has previously denied he had any knowledge that Ailes harassed women.

The suit comes at a time of significant legal peril for Fox News. It is currently facing a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit from the election tech company Dominion set for trial in April; another $2.7 billion defamation suit from a second tech company, Smartmatic, looms after that.

In 2011, Fox paid Luhn more than $3 million after she sent a chronicle privately recounting her allegations of years of sexual extortion to the network's then chief lawyer. But in 2016, after former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson alleged that Ailes had sexually harassed her in a lawsuit against the network, the floodgates opened.

Luhn's public account followed a welter of further accusations against Ailes by then-current and former journalists at the network led the Murdoch family who control Fox to oust him. Then Fox News star Megyn Kelly, then Fox commentator Julie Roginsky and former Fox host Alisyn Camerota were among women those who accused Ailes of harassment.

In ensuing years, Fox News stars Bill O'Reilly, James Rosen, and Ed Henrywere among those forced out amid allegations of sexual harassment toward colleagues. O'Reilly and Henry denied the claims, while Rosen declined to comment. But the conduct of executives managing the fallout to the conduct of Ailes and others has come under severe scrutiny too.

Encounters allegedly videotaped by Ailes as "insurance policy"

In Luhn's lawsuit, her attorneys say only the weight of those allegations and Ailes' departure gave her the courage to speak out. The accusations in the suit - which track those she first made in New York Magazine six-and-a-half-years ago - include lurid and disturbing elements. She worked largely out of Fox's Washington bureau. But she alleges other Fox executives repeatedly summoned her to New York City to stay at a hotel near Fox News' headquarters at his behest for coerced encounters.

In what the lawsuit calls the most troubling instance, Luhn says Ailes forced her into sadomasochistic acts with himself and another woman, and videotaped the acts. Luhn claims he described the tapes as an "insurance policy" that would ensure she met his "loyalty requirement." And she claims he would make clear any career advancement or security depended on satisfying him physically.

Ailes died in 2017, less than a year after being forced out. (The Murdochs paid him $40 million in severance compensation - twice what Carlson was paid to settle her lawsuit. O'Reilly left with a reported $25 million.) Before Ailes' death, attorney Susan Estrich, denied the allegations by Luhn and other women of sexual misconduct.

In her suit, Luhn contends that Ailes sought to manage her activities, even reviewing her email traffic as she began to fall apart emotionally from the abuse, with help of Shine. Her lawyers' detailed account alleges Shine sent her to Texas to live with her family, picked a psychiatrist for her and called her father repeatedly to determine her state of mind.

The suit also alleges discrimination and negligence by Fox in failing to prevent predatory actions by Ailes and complicit actions by Shine to enable them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 25, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier version of this story misstated when former Fox News President Bill Shine left the network. He departed in 2017.
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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.