Fighting to keep a sex-trafficking lawsuit against Fox News alive, a lawyer for a former associate producer at the network described ex-anchor Ed Henry’s alleged conduct as “Weinstein-esque, but worse.”
Filed by ex-associate producer Jennifer Eckhart roughly a year ago, the lawsuit opened with a “Trigger Warning” with blaring red text in block capital letters warning that the complaint contained “Highly Graphic Information of a Sexual Nature, Including Sexual Assault.”
Counsel for Fox News and Henry tried to dismiss that lawsuit in court during 90-minute oral arguments on Wednesday. Toward the end of the wrangling, Eckhart’s lawyer Michael John Willemin made the comparison to disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Rattling off the allegations of the lawsuit, Willemin claimed that Henry forced his client to have oral sex, handcuffed her to a hotel bed, beat her and left her bloodied.
“He hit her,” Willemin said, referring to Henry and his client. “He handcuffed her. He bruised her up. He called her a ‘whore.’ He told her she doesn’t have a choice.”
Like a civil lawsuit against Weinstein, Eckhart’s complaint alleges violations of federal sex-trafficking law. The statute requires Eckhart to show Fox knew or should have known that Henry coerced her into a commercial sex act.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams grilled Fox’s lawyer Kathleen M. McKenna about that proposition.
“Why should Fox not have known that Mr. Henry was essentially exchanging empty promises for sex?” Judge Abrams asked.
Later, Judge Abrams sharply questioned whether the promise of career advancement could meet the bar under the statute.
“Why is promising someone to get into a place with very important people who can benefit their career not a thing of value?” asked Abrams, who is the sister of Law&Crime’s founder Dan Abrams.
Fox News’s lawyer McKenna said that allegations that Henry had an affair with a Las Vegas stripper was not enough to put the network on notice. The network acknowledges suspending Henry for four months in 2016, after learning about it.
In the lawsuit, Eckhart claims that Fox Business Network anchor Liz Claman told her at the time: “Everyone at Fox News knows that [Mr.] Henry is a sex addict. That’s no secret.”
For Fox, this claim even if true would hardly put the network on notice about Henry’s alleged threat to female employees.
“That was non-work behavior, whatever one thinks of it,” the lawyer said, referring to the Las Vegas affair.
Fox fired Henry in weeks before the filing of Eckhart’s lawsuit in July 2020, years after the suspension.
Roughly an hour into the hearing, Judge Abrams grilled Eckhart’s attorney about the significance of that episode. She asked whether Henry having an affair with a stripper, or anyone else, or allegedly being put into treatment for a sex addiction would put Fox on notice that he would harass employees.
“They should have had a heightened awareness to pay attention,” Willemin replied, adding that this event was “just the beginning.”
Willemin also noted that his client’s lawsuit does not come in a vacuum, when it comes to the question of Fox’s knowledge of sexual misconduct.
“Roger Ailes, open secret,” Willemin said. “Bill Shine, open secret. Bill O’Reilly, open secret. ”
The lawsuit claims that Fox also should have known about Henry’s alleged harassment of women at the network through an investigation it commissioned from the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.
When pressed on whether Paul Weiss’s report was every made public, Fox’s lawyer responded: “No, your honor.”
Henry’s lawyer alleged that the relationship with Eckhart was consensual and attached raunchy photographs and sexts that she allegedly sent to her. Eckhart’s counsel voiced outrage about the disclosure of the images, which were ultimately sealed by Judge Abrams.
Henry’s lawyers justified filing the images as part of a zealous defense, arguing that describing the images does not illustrate their claim about a consensual encounter as powerfully.
Willemin characterized that as an argument that a consensual encounter gave a pass for sexual assault, a notion he called “unbelievably offensive.”
“The worst part of this in my view is the legal arguments don’t even rely on these arguments,” Willemin said. “They were done completely gratuitously.”
Judge Abrams reserved decision on Fox News and Henry’s motions to dismiss.
Law&Crime reached out to Fox News for comment.
(image via Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
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