The morning after Fox News chief Roger Ailes resigned, the cable network’s former director of booking placed a call to the New York law firm hired by 21st Century Fox to investigate sexual-harassment allegations against Ailes. Laurie Luhn told the lawyers at Paul, Weiss that she had been harassed by Ailes for more than 20 years, that executives at Fox News had known about it and helped cover it up, and that it had ruined her life. “It was psychological torture,” she later told me.
So far, most of the women who have spoken publicly about harassment by Ailes in the wake of Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit had said no to Ailes’s sexual advances. They ran out of hotel rooms, they pulled away from embraces, they complained or avoided or generally resisted, even when it hurt their careers. This is the account of a woman who chose to go along with what Roger Ailes wanted — because he was powerful, because she thought he could help her advance her career, because she was professionally adrift and emotionally unmoored.
Luhn recounted her story this week in 11 hours of interviews at her Los Angeles home, in the presence of a family friend who first heard her accounts in 2010, long before there was any public discussion of Ailes’s alleged harassment of women. Luhn’s struggle with mental illness notwithstanding, New York was able to independently corroborate key details in her account, including that she was sexually involved with Ailes for many years, from sources who worked at Fox at the same time she did. Additionally, I viewed documents Luhn retained, including a copy of the $3.15 million severance agreement she signed in 2011 that includes iron-clad nondisclosure provisions.
(Ailes’s attorneys Susan Estrich and Barry Asen did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Over the course of the interviews, Luhn alternated between composed, detailed recollections and outbursts of grief, shame, anger, and paranoia. “I’ve always wondered,” she said, “would the truth come out?”
Luhn said she first met Ailes in the summer of 1988 at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign. She was 28 and single; he was married and approaching 50. She’d moved from Texas to Washington the year before to work as a flight attendant for Continental Airlines, but she quickly became interested in politics. A volunteer job at the Bush campaign phone bank led to a full-time position in the campaign’s accounting department. After seeing Ailes’s political television ads previewed in the office, she decided she wanted to go into political communications. One Saturday morning right before Labor Day, she introduced herself to Ailes in the elevator at the campaign headquarters. “I’m Laurie Luhn, and I got to see the ads. I’d love to learn how to do that,” she recalled saying. A few days later, she said, Ailes called out to her as he walked by her desk: “If there is ever anything I can do for you, let me know.”
In the fall of 1990, Luhn did call on him for help. She was working on the primary congressional campaign of John Vogt in Central Florida. When it was clear her candidate was going to lose and she would have to return to Washington with no job and mounting bills, she called Ailes in New York at his media consulting company, Ailes Communications.
Sometime around Thanksgiving, she said, Ailes called her back. He said he was in D.C. and asked if she wanted to come by his Washington office for an interview before he flew home to New York. Luhn brought a copy of her résumé, listing her final title at the Bush campaign: office manager. “Well, we already got an office manager. I don’t really know what you could do,” she recalled Ailes saying. Then, she said, Ailes began asking personal questions: “Where are you from? What is your relationship with your parents like?”
Luhn said Ailes then asked her for a ride to the airport and offered to take her out to dinner. “I had nothing but bills. I was in a horrible panic. I must have told him that over dinner,” she said. Afterward, she drove him to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. “We pull up and I say, ‘Thank you so much for dinner.’ He leans over and slips me the tongue and kisses me,” she said, “and hands me a wad of cash. ‘Here’s to help you pay some bills,’ he said. It was maybe $200 or $300.” To her at the time, it was a lot of money.
After that, Luhn said, Ailes called her with an offer: He would put her on what she recalled was a $500 monthly retainer to do “research.” Her first assignment was filing Freedom of Information Act requests on Ailes’s competitors Charlie Black, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone, the latter two of whom are now advising Trump. The retainer also paid for Luhn to be available to meet Ailes when he was in Washington.
On the night of January 16, 1991, Ailes was in Washington to prep George H.W. Bush on his Oval Office address to announce the start of the first Gulf War. Ailes and Luhn again met for dinner. According to Luhn, he asked her to go home, watch the speech, and then meet him at the Crystal City Marriott, where he had a suite. By this point, Luhn understood what Ailes expected of her, but she went with him anyway.
She recalled that, when she walked into the hotel room, Ailes asked her what she thought of Bush’s speech. “I was always very complimentary,” she told me. “I wanted to learn how to do all that. I wanted to learn how to do the ads, how to do the coaching. I wanted to learn how to work with candidates.”
Luhn put on the black garter and stockings she said Ailes had instructed her to buy; he called it her uniform. Ailes sat on a couch. “Go over there. Dance for me,” she recalled him saying. She hesitated. “Laurie, if you’re gonna be my girl, my eyes and ears, if you are going to be someone I can depend on in Washington, my spy, come on, dance for me,” he said, according to her account. When she started dancing, Ailes got out a video camera. Luhn didn’t want to be filmed, she said, but Ailes was insistent: “I am gonna need you to do better than that.”
When she had finished dancing, Ailes told her to get down on her knees in front of him, she said, and put his hands on her temples. As she recalled, he began speaking to her slowly and authoritatively, as if he were some kind of Svengali: “Tell me you will do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it. At any time, at any place when I call. No matter where I call you, no matter where you are. Do you understand? You will follow orders. If I tell you to put on your uniform, what are you gonna do, Laurie? WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO, LAURIE?” Then, she recalled, his voice dropped to a whisper: “What are you, Laurie? Are you Roger’s whore? Are you Roger’s spy? Come over here.” Ailes asked her to perform oral sex, she said.
Later, Ailes showed her the footage of her dancing. She asked him what he intended to do with it and, she says, he replied, “I am going to put it in a safe-deposit box just so we understand each other.”
After that, Luhn said, she regularly met Ailes in hotels for sexual encounters. He asked her to buy a boom box so she could bring music to dance to. Ailes always left cash for her. A couple of times, while he was advising French politician Jacques Chirac, he gave her francs. “I remember I had to go exchange the money,” Luhn said.
As Ailes moved from politics to television news, Luhn had hopes of going along with him. In 1993, NBC hired Ailes to be president of CNBC. Ailes dangled the prospect of an on-air job at the financial-news channel. “He played me,” said Luhn. “He says, ‘I’d like you to come read for me, but you’ll have to get rid of your Texas accent.’ That’s how he does it. The job obviously never happened.”
In the spring of 1996, Ailes recruited Luhn to work on the launch of Fox News. “Rupert is going to pay for this channel. I want to see if you can come,” she said Ailes told her in the lobby of the Crystal City Marriott. A Fox executive called her a few days later and offered her a job as a “guest relations” staffer on Fox News Sunday, the public-affairs program.
At this point, Luhn could have stayed away from Ailes. She had a job as a legal aide at the lobbying firm Patton Boggs and “was pretty happy,” she recalled. But she chose to go work for him at Fox News. Why would she do this? Luhn’s explanation is that Ailes held her so much in his sway that she couldn’t resist. “I was programmed,” she said. Even today, she said, “sometimes the Stockholm syndrome with Roger slips back, and I am still a little girl trying to impress Daddy Roger.”
Plus, going to Fox moved her career in a direction she wanted it to go. She thought working with the guests on cable news seemed like a glamorous opportunity. “I loved that job,” she said. “I loved booking. I loved building the contacts and making sure that those guests were going to love the experience they would have at Fox News, that they would want to come back.”
At first, Luhn didn’t see much of Ailes at Fox. But after the network was up and running, she said, the hotel meetings resumed. Now he began calling her to New York for encounters. They developed a system. She says that Ailes or Fox executive Bill Shine would call then–Washington bureau chief Kim Hume and tell her there was a “booking meeting” in New York that Luhn needed to attend. (Through a spokesperson, Shine confirmed he called Luhn to New York for booking meetings.)
They met in the afternoons, she said, usually at the DoubleTree in Times Square, sometimes the Renaissance — Fox people preferred the Muse. “It was always the on-my-knees, hold-my-temples routine. There was no affair, no sex, no love,” she said. Ailes continued to give Luhn cash afterward, and she began racking up personal expenses on her Fox News credit card. (Luhn said she always paid the bills back.)
As she was promoted through the ranks at Fox, Luhn worked harder and harder to please Ailes. She zealously promoted the network’s right-wing agenda. “I was very proud of the product. I was very proud of how we handled 9/11. Very proud of how we handled the run-up to the Iraq War,” she said. “My job was to sell the war. I needed to get people on the air that were attractive and articulate and could convey the importance of this campaign. It was a drumbeat.”
Luhn said she sensed her colleagues in the Washington bureau gossiped about her frequent trips to New York and treated her suspiciously. She is convinced that many people at Fox News knew about what was going on with Ailes. “They all knew there was quid pro quo,” Luhn recalled. Two former Fox employees confirmed people knew Ailes was involved with Luhn.
A former colleague in Fox’s Washington bureau said that Luhn was “dysfunctional” at work. “No one knew what the heck she did,” the colleague said. “She was a ‘protected person’ and left alone.”
Luhn’s relationship with her boss at the time, Washington bureau chief Kim Hume, became strained. Hume threatened to fire her when she submitted an expense report for the DoubleTree hotel, Luhn recalled. “She said, ‘Do you expect me to sign that? I can get you out of here. I’d get you six weeks of severance.’” (Hume did not respond to a request for comment.)
In 2004, Luhn told Ailes about Hume’s suspicions. Ailes came up with a solution: Luhn got a promotion and a raise, and she would report to Ailes’s deputy Shine. Ailes summoned Luhn to New York to tell her the news, Luhn said. Then he told her to call Hume, from his extension, and inform her that she would no longer be reporting to her. She did, she told me, and Hume hung up. Ailes was sending a message to the bureau chief: Luhn was protected by him. Inside Fox News, Luhn became known as an “FOR” — friend of Roger. After the call, according to Luhn, Ailes turned to her and said, “Now, remember, you’re Doris Day. Go put your uniform on, get over to the DoubleTree, and thank me for this.”
Around this time, Ailes’s star Bill O’Reilly was accused by a Fox producer named Andrea Mackris of engaging in unwanted phone sex with her. O’Reilly settled with her for a reported $10 million. Despite the obvious risks, Ailes’s sexual demands only grew more intense after he promoted Luhn, she said. On three occasions, twice at the Renaissance and once at the Omni Berkshire, she said, Ailes demanded that she engage in sadomasochistic sex with another woman while he watched. The final such session occurred in the summer of 2005, Luhn recalled. Ailes snapped pictures. Afterward, he left $1,000 on the dresser and invited the two women to a party at Elaine’s on the Upper East Side, Luhn said. “I remember him being there holding court.”
By 2006, Luhn said, Ailes was regularly demanding phone sex in the office, but the hotel visits had stopped. Instead, said Luhn, Ailes instructed her to recruit young women for him. “You’re going to find me ‘Roger’s Angels.’ You’re going to find me whores,” Luhn recalled Ailes saying on numerous occasions, urging her to send young Fox staffers his way. He had promoted Luhn to director of bookings, which gave her the authority to hire employees. She said she chose women Ailes would be attracted to. “You’re not expected to hire unattractive people,” she said.
Luhn denied ever setting Ailes up with her staff for explicitly sexual purposes, but she did send them in for private meetings with him where she knew they could be exposed to sexual harassment. One woman who worked for Luhn and spoke only on the condition of anonymity said that Luhn sent her to an after-hours meeting with Ailes in his office. According to this woman’s account, Ailes followed the same pattern he used with Luhn many years before: He asked her about her family and career goals and offered to mentor her — perhaps it would give him “energy.” Ailes also asked about the woman’s shoes, she told me, commenting that “women who like shoes also like lingerie.” He also mentioned that he had advised heads of state with “absolute loyalty and discretion,” so that meant she could “tell [him] everything.” The woman said she found the conversation highly inappropriate and uncomfortable. Ailes tried to hug her and she left the meeting shaken. Months later, Luhn fired the woman. She hired a lawyer and signed a settlement with Fox.
Meanwhile, Luhn’s emotional condition worsened. In the winter of 2007, Ailes removed her from the booking department and moved her to event planning, in what was essentially a no-show job. A high-ranking Fox source close to Ailes confirmed that Ailes promoted Luhn into “fake jobs” to keep her “in the tent.”
This job change devastated her, Luhn said. A few days after Ailes gave her the news, she had a mental breakdown en route to a vacation in Mexico, hallucinating during a layover in Atlanta. She called Ailes, who told her not to go to Mexico, Luhn said; Bill Shine called her back and said they had arranged a flight to Houston and she should check into the Four Seasons Hotel there. (A Fox News spokesperson said Shine consulted a New York–based psychiatrist, who recommended that she go home to Texas.) After what she remembered as several days in Texas, Fox flew her back to New York. Shine’s deputy, Suzanne Scott, picked her up at the airport and drove her to the Warwick Hotel on Sixth Avenue, where Luhn recalled that Scott checked her in under Scott’s name. (Through a spokesperson, Scott denies this.) Luhn said she spent several days at the Warwick in a state of delirium.
When she returned to the office, Ailes told her to cut off contact with everyone in the Washington bureau and put her D.C. apartment on the market. A high-ranking Fox source confirmed that Fox moved Luhn to New York so Ailes could monitor her. Luhn remembers staying at the Warwick Hotel for six weeks. During this time, she said, Ailes told her he needed to approve all of her outgoing emails. “I’d show him all the emails I’m getting,” she recalled. For several weeks, he marked them up and would “dictate exactly” how to respond. “You don’t have friends,” she recalled Ailes telling her. “I’m your friend. I’ll protect you.” He told her to also forward her emails to Bill Shine for review, she said. “The second floor” — where top Fox executives work — “was in charge of my life. I wasn’t in charge,” she said. (Through a spokesperson, Shine denies this.)
According to Luhn, Ailes seemed panicked that she might talk to someone about their sexual encounters. During one staff meeting in 2007, he spotted a bottle of anxiety medication in her purse. (She’d been seeing a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist for insomnia and anxiety since 1999.) After her colleagues left the room, Ailes berated her. “Don’t take pills, and don’t you ever tell that doctor about us!” she recalled him saying. “His whole deal was they can never prove anything about you and me unless you say something. He said that to me for 20 years. Why do you think I got so messed up?”
For the next 18 months, Luhn remained at Fox with few job responsibilities. In late 2010, she moved to California and rented an apartment in Brentwood, while remaining on the Fox News payroll. “She wanted to get away,” her father, George, told me. Alone in California, Luhn said she suffered a nervous breakdown. Fox executives tried to make contact with her. Luhn’s father told me that Bill Shine called him several times. “He wanted to know if I had talked to her,” he said. “They were trying to get hold of her.”
Eventually, Luhn went back to Texas, where she grew up. “She was upset and trying to find herself,” her father told me. George Luhn says that Shine recommended a psychiatrist in San Antonio for his daughter. “He did say that they had somebody for Laurie to go see,” he recalled. Through a spokesperson, Shine said he “was only trying to help.” Under that psychiatrist’s treatment, Laurie was hospitalized and medicated. At one point, she tried to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of lorazepam, an anti-anxiety medication.
In late 2010 or early 2011, Luhn said, she wrote a letter to Fox lawyer Dianne Brandi saying she had been sexually harassed by Ailes for 20 years. Brandi did not acknowledge receipt of the letter, but, according to a source, she asked Ailes about the sexual-harassment allegations, which he vehemently denied. Ailes, according to the source, told Brandi to work out a settlement. Luhn hired an attorney to negotiate her exit from Fox.
Through a spokesperson, Brandi declined to comment.
On June 15, 2011, Luhn and Brandi signed a $3.15 million settlement agreement with extensive nondisclosure provisions. The settlement document, which Luhn showed me, bars her from going to court against Fox for the rest of her life. It also precludes her from speaking to government authorities like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the FBI. Not to mention the press. Aware that speaking with New York on the record could pose legal risks, Luhn was insistent that she wanted to tell her story. “The truth shall set you free. Nothing else matters,” she told me. Her family friend also said this is what Luhn wanted.
Last summer, Luhn moved back to Los Angeles from San Antonio. Unemployed and unsure of what to do, she sent Roger Ailes a letter. She shared a copy with me:
Last week, as I was walking on the beautiful Santa Monica Beach and pondering my future, I wondered how you would advise me. Since you were my mentor for so many years, it still feels strange when I am unable to consult you…
While I believe forgiveness is very important all the way around, especially if I am to convey that I have moved past the sadness of 2011, I also believe some context and background would be helpful for you to better understand your former protégé at this time.
The past few years have not been easy. Bill Shine sent me to a San Antonio psychiatrist…It was a true nightmare. What I really needed was sleep, and maybe some sort of counseling. Instead, what I got was a doctor who immediately prescribed very dangerous, serious meds. Those drugs made me hallucinate for over a year….You had always said to stay away from meds…It was an extremely frightening ordeal. A woman with a normal brain should not be given serious medication meant for sick people. The only reason I finally got off the drugs was due to an overdose. When my head finally cleared, it was like waking up from a very long, confusing dream.
Sadly, I realized that I’d lost a year and a half of my life. Fortunately, I got some counseling from a competent person who recognized the turmoil I’d experienced. It was a long road to good health, but, by the grace of God, I got there.
Roger, I still want a chance to live a happy, meaningful life filled with kind, interesting people. You gave me the opportunity to work in television news and event planning. I loved working at Fox until the rumors and malicious gossip made it truly unbearable. I endured a great deal. That’s the part that I cannot discuss with your lieutenants. They do not know or are in a position to understand.
The generous financial compensation I received from Fox made the healing possible. I was able to spend time with some people who actually cared about me. For that, I thank you very much. I am deeply grateful….You are in a unique position. I believe that you understand me, and you are also able to recognize my predicament. I need a job in LA. I am asking for your help. Please help me Roger. I have been a good soldier…
A UPS tracking number Luhn provided indicates that the letter was received by the Fox mailroom. Luhn said she never heard from Ailes after she sent it, but did get a call from Brandi, who asked her, “Are you trying to do something to Roger? What is this?” (Brandi did not respond to three requests for comment.)
Luhn continues to struggle with intense periods of anxiety and paranoia. After calling Paul, Weiss last Friday, she sent an email late the following night to Michele Hirshman, the partner leading the 21st Century Fox investigation, expressing panic. The subject line read “Security”: “Michele, my situation has become more serious. The stalking and intimidation was far worse today. I believe my entire house is wired. They are both monitoring and trying to scare me.” (Hirshman did not respond to requests for comment.)
Luhn seems to understand that messages like these do not help her case, that this, coupled with her bouts of mental illness, could make her seem like an unreliable narrator. But the credibility of her account is supported by, among other things, the fact that Fox News paid her millions of dollars to prevent her from telling it. “I am reporting sexual harassment,” she told me. “Whether I am a crazy person or not, I am reporting sexual harassment.”