MANHATTAN (CN) — In the sexual-harassment saga underway at Fox News, the lawsuit lobbed last month by ex-host Andrea Tantaros stood out as one of the more bizarre turns.
Accused by Tantaros of using a “highly complex and extremely high-tech” campaign to torment its enemies, Fox News called these allegations so outlandish that her lawyers should face sanctions and professional discipline.
“The allegations of the complaint read like the plot of a television drama: plaintiff Andrea Tantaros claims that her then-employer, Fox News Network … hacked her laptop computer, tapped her telephone, and then tortured her with the information gathered from those acts by sending her coded messages through a ‘sockpuppet’ social media account,” Andrew Levander, an attorney for Fox, wrote in a 25-page memorandum on Wednesday.
“But pleadings in federal court are not supposed to be works of fiction; they must be grounded in fact,” added Levander, a partner with the New York office of Dechert LLP. “The allegations in the complaint are not just false, they are outrageously and flagrantly so.”
Levander’s motion for sanctions comes exactly one month after Tantaros accused Fox News of conspiring with a social-media marketing company to engage in “digital character-assassination” that involved “criminal conduct,” a phrase that attorney Judd Burstein emphasized with bold letters in the complaint.
The 34-page filing accused Fox News of having used “illegal electronic surveillance and computer hacking” to obtain information that network-controlled fake accounts later used to “intimidate, terrorize, and crush [Tantaros’] career through an endless stream of lewd, offensive, and career-damaging social media posts, blog entries and commentary.”
But Fox News says the allegations crumble under the barest scrutiny, hinging on a Twitter account credited to Daniel Wayne Block.
“Mr. Block is a real person living in Gainesville, Florida, who maintains the account in his own name,” Fox’s memo states. “That fact could have been determined in minutes by looking at an online directory.”
Though the Block account was active for just four months in 2016, it posted 6,729 tweets in that short window. Patriotic memes and inspirational quotes account for the bulk of the messages, but photographs of Tantaros, sometimes multiple per day, also dot the timeline.
Tantaros saw a threat, however, even in the benign nature tweets: She claimed that the picture of a Colorado elk that Block posted in June was a veiled reference to a personal conversation she had with her mother about possibly relocating to Aspen.
“But Mr. Block tweeted many pictures of elk, including the exact same image with precisely the same message on May 22, 2016, a month before Tantaros’ alleged June 17 conversation,” Fox’s memo states.
Having deposed Block himself, Fox News claims that the failure of Tantaros’ lawyer to reach out to the former U.S. Airman is either negligence or malicious.
“It is clearly the outlet of a self-avowed fan, who tweeted publicity photos of Tantaros in which he chirped, ‘Good morning, have a great week!,’ or ‘Sweet dreams, ‘Sunshine,’” the memo states. “He also opined that Tantaros is ‘beautiful,’ his ‘favorite’ host on ‘Outnumbered,’ and that she ‘deserves a show of her own!’”
Burstein meanwhile has refused to back down. In a two-page statement picking apart supposed inconsistencies in Block’s testimony, the lawyer calls Fox’s memo its “smoking gun.”
“The real story here is that, in their effort to bully Ms. Tantaros by filing a frivolous sanctions motion, counsel for Fox News has demonstrated its guilt,” Burstein wrote, again in boldface text.
“While I believe that Fox News’s counsel will be sanctioned for their negligence in submitting a perjurious declaration from Mr. Block, I thank them for doing so,” he added.
Fox News notes that Burstein has been sanctioned before for his aggressive litigation tactics.
Before he rose to his current position on the Second Circuit, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin slapped Burstein in 1999 for “Rambo lawyering,” saying the attorney had threatened to subject his opposing counsel with the “legal equivalent of a proctology exam” if he did not settle a case.
Burstein managed to overturn those sanctions, however, with the federal appeals court finding that Burstein was entitled “to warn the opposing party of his intention to assert colorable claims, as well as to speculate about the likely effect of those claims being brought.”
Depicting this as a case of history repeating itself, Fox News wants U.S. District Judge George Daniels to permanently dismiss Tantaros’ suit, award the network money damages, and refer the case to disciplinary authorities.
“Context matters too,” the network’s memo states. “Burstein’s history of grandstanding and threatening a ‘media event’ betray his true intention: to pressure Fox News to accede to Tantaros’ extortionate settlement demands. Burstein first threatened to take Tantaros’ claims to the media rather than the courts to squeeze Fox News. Then he unleashed the threatened media assault on Fox News and filed a legal action in contravention of his client’s obligation to arbitrate her claims in confidence.”
Fox News has seen its ratings plummet as it hemorrhages hosts like Bill O’Reilly amid a sexual-harassment scandal that put a black mark on the obituary of its CEO Roger Ailes, who died last week.
“I certainly hope for your sake that you do not have any daughters because, if they are anything like my daughter, they would be outraged at the way you put your own credibility on the line for people who have engaged in such reprehensible conduct towards women,” Burstein told Levander on Tuesday. “Indeed, on a day when my client has been receiving death threats in the wake of Roger Ailes’s son’s eulogy, your lack of perspective is all the more appalling.”
Fox’s Sean Hannity meanwhile has faced a different sort of pressure: losing an advertiser on Wednesday after using his platform to advance conspiracy theories about the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
The announcement fell a day after Rich’s family pleaded for Hannity to stop insinuating – without evidence – that the Hillary Clinton campaign had Rich murdered for leaking information to WikiLeaks.