Tantaros Adds to Fox Fight With Claim of `Sockpuppet' Attack

(Bloomberg) -- Former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros stepped up her fight with her ex-employer claiming in a new lawsuit that she was a victim of hacking, electronic surveillance and a social media harassment campaign that mirrors the plot of a "Homeland" episode.

Fox News operatives broke into her personal computer, planted key-logging and other surveillance software on it and then used the information “to intimidate, terrorize and crush her career through an endless stream of lewd, offensive and career-damaging social media posts, blog entries and commentary,” Tantaros claims in the lawsuit.

“The outlandish merges with reality in the world of Fox News,” she said in the complaint, filed Monday in New York federal court.

Dechert LLP, the law firm representing Fox News, rejected the allegations in an emailed statement.

“Fox News and its executives flatly deny that they conducted any electronic surveillance of Ms. Tantaros,” the law firm said. “They have no knowledge of the anonymous or pseudonymous tweets described in her complaint.”

Susan Estrich, a lawyer representing Ailes, also said the suit has no merit.

‘Obvious Attempt’

“Ms. Tantaros and her attorney continue to file one lawsuit after another in an obvious attempt to get publicity,” she said in an email. “And any suit arising out of her employment at Fox News belongs in arbitration, as they well know.”

Tantaros’s complaint follows a sexual-harassment lawsuit she filed last year. In it she said Fox operated like a “sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult.” Former anchor Gretchen Carlson sued earlier with similar claims. Other complaints from Fox News employees followed. That led to the firing of Fox News Chief Executive Officer Roger Ailes. Bill O’Reilly, the network’s top-rated host, was fired last week after women complained he sexually harassed them. And Fox’s top-rated female anchor, Megyn Kelly, bolted for NBC.

Carlson settled her lawsuit for $20 million. Tantaros’s sexual-harassment claim was sent to private arbitration.

“This lawsuit is a flimsy pretext to keep Ms. Tantaros and her sexual-harassment claims in the public eye,” Dechert said.

Tantaros’s new lawsuit builds on her previous allegations, claiming that the company engaged in “bizarre and shocking” behavior designed to “emotionally torture” her into surrendering her legal claims.

News International which, like Fox News, is headed by Rupert Murdoch, was battered by allegations of phone hacking and bribery from 2011 that saw criminal and judicial probes into the press, the closing of News of the World and resignations of several high-profile executives.

U.S. prosecutors began an investigation into secret settlement payments the company made to female on-air hosts who complained of sexual harassment. The probe, disclosed in February, centers on whether the payments should’ve been disclosed to investors, a person familiar with the investigation said at the time. U.S. prosecutors didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether the probe has been expanded to include Tantaros’s claims.

‘Black Room’

Tantaros’s complaint also refers to a so-called “Black Room,” set up by Ailes to illegally secure journalists’ phone records and credit reports. The use of fake social-media accounts has been a part of Fox News’ repertoire of dirty tricks since at least 2008, according to the complaint, which cited a David Folkenflik book, “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires,” to make the assertion.

Fox violated criminal laws by planting the surveillance software on Tantaros’s personal computer, according to the complaint.

Fox “sockpuppet” accounts -- hundreds of thousands of them -- on the Internet then posted and retweeted information to make it look like an organic social-media activity, Tantaros claimed. Sockpuppets refer to fake online identities created by individuals or companies to promote opinions or causes, while appearing to act independently.

‘Purple Memorial’

In June, one of her close friends was hospitalized for a scorpion bite, which she discussed with friends by telephone, according to the lawsuit. One of the claimed sockpuppet accounts tweeted an ad for the 1957 movie "The Black Scorpion." The same month, Tantaros and her mother had a phone conversation discussing the anniversary of her brother’s 2013 death. Another sockpuppet account tweeted "PURPLE MEMORIAL ... FOR DANIEL TANTAROS, R.I.P. DANIEL.”

Tantaros claims the social-media postings were intended "to emotionally devastate her and make her concerned about her physical safety." The technique was similar to the type of "professional digital character-assassination" portrayed in a Homeland episode titled "Sock-Puppet," Tantaros said in the complaint.

Tantaros seeks unspecified damages from the company, Ailes, and other executives, including Fox News spokeswoman Irena Briganti, in the lawsuit.

The case is Tantaros v. Fox News Network, 17-cv-02958, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).