Fired Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly paid $32 million to settle a sexual harassment claim just before he signed his last contract with Fox News.
A report in the New York Times published Saturday said O'Reilly made the settlement to Lis Wiehl, a longtime contributor to his program, who alleged that O'Reilly forced her into a nonconsensual sexual relationship and sent her sexually explicit material.
The settlement — a staggering figure for a sexual harassment case — was made in January, according to the news report, just before O'Reilly signed a new four-year contract that would pay him $25 million annually to continue as host of his top-rated prime-time program "The O'Reilly Factor."
A representative of Fox News parent 21st Century Fox acknowledged that it knew about the settlement, but said the company was not aware of the financial terms at the time.
"When the company renewed Bill O'Reilly's contract in February, it knew that a sexual harassment lawsuit had been threatened against him by Lis Wiehl, but was informed by Mr. O'Reilly that he had settled the matter personally, on financial terms that he and Ms. Wiehl had agreed were confidential and not disclosed to the company," the representative told the Los Angeles Times.
O'Reilly denied the allegations to the New York Times. "I have never mistreated anyone," he said, suggesting that his downfall was "politically and financially motivated."
O'Reilly's new deal included a stipulation that any further sexual harassment allegations made against him could lead to his termination.
That came just a couple of months later in April, when psychologist Wendy Walsh filed a new complaint with 21st Century Fox. She accused O'Reilly of reneging on a commitment to get her a position as a paid contributor at Fox News after she rejected his advances at a 2013 dinner meeting at Hotel Bel-Air.
O'Reilly, long the highest rated personality on the cable news network, was fired on April 19. Walsh's complaint had followed the disclosure in the New York Times that a total of $13 million in payouts were made by O'Reilly and Fox News to five women who asserted they were sexually harassed or verbally abused by the host over the last 16 years.
Debra Katz, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases, said the reported size of the settlement amount for Wiehl is "tantamount to a class-action suit."
Katz said a settlement of that size typically includes a promise to withdraw the allegation. "It's done as a way to put a hammer over the individual who signs so they will never come forward and disclose the allegations," she said. "If she does, the person who has settled for an obscene amount of money can pull the declaration and say 'she recanted.'"
Mark Fabiani, a representative for O'Reilly, told the New York Times that 21st Century Fox was "well aware" that Wiehl had signed a sworn affidavit repudiating the allegations against him.
In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Fabiani said the New York Times report on Wiehl's complaint is "based on leaked information provided by anonymous sources that is out of context, false, defamatory, and obviously designed to embarrass Bill O'Reilly and to keep him from competing in the marketplace."
The disclosure of the new settlement is likely to derail any hopes O'Reilly had of making a television comeback. There has been chatter among TV news business insiders that O'Reilly was looking to get back on the air, possibly as a commentator or host with the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
O'Reilly recently started TV appearances to promote his new book "Killing England," including on his formal rival Sean Hannity's Fox News program. He has also given interviews to NBC's "Today" and CNN.
The revelation of the settlement is yet another obstacle in 21st Century Fox's efforts to get past the sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed the company since former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against the division's founding chief executive, Roger Ailes, who died in May.
While 21st Century Fox has aggressively investigated harassment claims and settled a number of them — including $20 million for Carlson — the company continues to be beleaguered by the issue. The treatment of women in the media and entertainment business has also become a hot topic of national conversation due to the recently revealed claims of harassment and sexual assault against film mogul Harvey Weinstein.
For 21st Century Fox, the matter has intensified British regulators' scrutiny of its proposed $15-billion deal to take full ownership of Sky TV in the United Kingdom.
4:50 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from O'Reilly's representative on the New York Times report.
2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from a representative for Bill O'Reilly and background information about 21st Century Fox's handling of previous sexual harassment allegations.