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For Extortion, O’Reilly’s Suit Might Not Fit [2004-10-17]

Paul H.B. Shin [New York Daily News]
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The woman accusing Fox News star Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment may have asked the popular pundit to fork over some dough, but that’s a far cry from extortion, legal experts said yesterday.

O’Reilly filed suit against the woman, associate producer Andrea Mackris, and her attorney on Wednesday, alleging they were trying to extort $60 million by threatening to sue him and demanding hush money to stay out of court.

Mackris, 33, countered with a sexual harassment suit the same day, accusing the 55-year-old O’Reilly of making “disgusting” phone calls and remarks.

The fact that O’Reilly and Fox News filed only civil claims of extortion and did not seek a criminal investigation shows weakness in their case, lawyers said.

“If you feel you have a strong case for extortion and you want to put the other side on the defensive, you would immediately call up the district attorney’s office and tell them go out and arrest these people,” said Peter DeFilippis, a noted litigator.

Eddie Hayes, a legal analyst for Court TV, agreed.

“It’s perfectly legal to say, ‘I want to get paid because you harassed me.’ It’s just that the number they picked is so outrageous,” Hayes said.

Neither the district attorney in Manhattan, where O’Reilly works, nor the district attorney in Nassau County, where the TV host lives, is investigating the alleged extortion case, spokesmen for both offices said.

Mackris’ attorney, Benedict Morelli, sent a letter dated Sept. 29 to News Corp. President Peter Chernin, alerting him that “a young woman employee of Fox” has been a victim of sexual harassment by “one of Fox’s most prominent on-air personalities.”

Sending such letters to open up negotiations for a possible settlement before filing a lawsuit is common practice and could never be seriously construed as extortion, both experts said.

“The idea that you could take a case with absolutely no base in fact and call up a defendant and say, ‘Give us some money or else we’ll continue with a fairy tale case,’ is really not something that occurs in the real world,” DeFilippis said.

Keeping both O’Reilly’s name and Mackris’ name out of the initial letter to Fox News was a common sense precaution, he added.

“The reason you want to do that is you don’t know who opens the mail over at Fox,” DeFilippis said. “It could be an employee who calls up the National Enquirer and sells the letter.”

O’Reilly addressed the charges briefly Wednesday during “The O’Reilly Factor,” saying the suit “is all about hurting me and the Fox News Channel.” Mackris started working for O’Reilly in April 2000.

O’Reilly’s lawyer, Ronald Green, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

With Barbara Ross and Brian Harmon