The death of Roger Ailes on Thursday will complicate the federal investigation into various activities at Fox News as well as a slew of discrimination lawsuits pending against the 21st Century Fox division that Ailes’ lead for 20 years before he was forced out last July.
Legal experts said Ailes’ death will make it harder for Fox to refute claims of harassment and discrimination made by current and former employees. Ailes had been accused of presiding over an operation where senior managers allowed a hostile work environment to persist for some female and minority employees. Ailes was ousted last July on the heels of a sexual harassment suit filed by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. Fox News star Bill O’Reilly left the company last month amid the fallout from sexual harassment allegations, and longtime programming executive Bill Shine was forced to resign as co-president on May 1.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan is understood to be probing the details of alleged settlements paid to those who accused Ailes and O’Reilly of sexual harassment and whether they were properly disclosed to shareholders in Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox. That investigation has also reportedly widened into intimidation tactics were utilized against employees at the network. Prosecutors at the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and criminal investigators from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service have interviewed Ailes’ accusers, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
Ailes’ passing means he will not be able to directly address any allegations. It’s not clear if he had been interviewed by federal investigators as part of the probe. Legal experts said that will put more pressure on Fox representatives to challenge witnesses through cross-examination and the discovery process. At the same time, it could makes it harder for prosecutors to build a case if others are found to have been involved in wrongdoing.
Dawn Deardon, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, declined to comment.
“It’s definitely going to have an impact not having a key decision-maker being able to testify on the company’s behalf,” said attorney Bryan Sullivan, partner at the Los Angeles-based law firm Early, Sullivan, Wright Gizer & McRae. “Odds are everybody who is going to be questioned is now going to say ‘Roger Ailes made the final decision.’ And he’s not going to be able to say ‘I relied on the general counsel’ or ‘I relied on the CFO.’ “
Ailes also was a key figure in numerous lawsuits that have been filed alleging civil rights violations at Fox News during his watch. Kelly Wright, a current Fox News anchor, joined a class-action lawsuit encompassing at least 11 current or former Fox News employees that accuse the company of fostering “a culture of severe racial harassment” and refusing to act on employee complaints.
“The sudden passing of Roger Ailes will make it difficult for Fox News to refute the allegations against him as his testimony was not secured by sworn testimony to date,” said attorney Douglas Wigdor, who represents Wright and other plaintiffs with pending actions, including Fox Radio personality Jessica Golloher.
Lisa Bloom, attorney for several women alleging sexual harassment at the hands of Ailes and O’Reilly, issued a pointed statement following Ailes death: “Let all his victims be ungagged for the true, full reckoning of his life. And give them back their jobs.”
(Pictured: Fox News anchor Kelly Wright)