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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Former Fox News Pundit Who Accused Exec of Sexual Assault Returns to Chicago

Tamara Holder, a lawyer whose accusations led to the firing of a Fox News exec, wants to restart her civil rights practice here.

Holder says that by moving back to Chicago, she's returning to a city where "people who love me and support me live."  Photo: Drew Gurian

I met Tamara Holder, 37, for breakfast. Although expertly made up—she had appeared that morning on CNN’s Headline News remotely from Chicago—she looked tired, and, as she put it, “sad.” She showed me a tattoo on her left inner wrist that read, “No Fear,” although her demeanor didn’t always match the words—she morphed from strong and assertive to fragile and scared as we talked.

After five years in New York, she’s back in Chicago, seeking to restart her law practice—she bills herself as a “tough-as-nails Chicago civil rights and pardon attorney”—and to inch her way back into TV commentary.

Signed as a Fox News contributor in 2010 and paid $50,000 a year for two years, she said, the John Marshall law school graduate was charged with being a relatively progressive voice who would bring her lawyerly analysis to issues of the day. She appeared mostly on the TV and radio shows of Sean Hannity, the network’s unrelenting conservative.

In 2012 she moved to New York, and her annual contributor’s fee skyrocketed to $300,000, she said.

All went well, she said, until February 2015, when a Fox executive, Francisco Cortes, vice president in charge of Fox News Latino, called her into his office. Last month she described to me the following account, which was first reported by the New York Times earlier this year, citing four confirming unnamed sources and a document drafted by Holder’s lawyers. She said that Cortes allegedly poured a shot of tequila for her, a shot for himself, exposed his penis, and attempted to push her mouth toward it. He held the door shut with one arm, but she managed to escape, she told me.

Traumatized and terrified, Holder, remained silent for more than a year, then changed course. After turning down a $300,000 severance package offer in September 2016, she said, Holder hired celebrity Los Angeles attorney Lisa Bloom, and, last February, settled with the network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, for $2.5 million.

When her Fox contract expired on the first day of 2017, she was out of a job and emotionally shaky. That’s when she decided to return to Chicago. Holder, the child of divorced parents who grew up in Colorado, went to boarding school in Washington state, and graduated from the University of Arizona, tells me, “[Chicago is] where people who love me and support me live… I’m a Chicagoan and that’s why I wanted to sit down with you. I wanted to show how important it is to be back here.”

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. It reflects the fact that Holder is operating under a confidentiality agreement, in effect for the next 10 months, that bars her from disparaging her former employer.

The two big names at Fox News who lost their jobs because of allegations of sexual harassment are Roger Ailes in July 2016 and Bill O’Reilly earlier this month. (Both men have denied these claims.) Did either of them sexually harass you?

No. To answer first your question about Roger: I wanted more TV presence so, early on, in 2012, just after I moved to New York, I met with Roger and he said he’d look at my tapes. He liked me. He’s a great bullshitter. He hates liberals and talked about how liberals are ruining the country.

What else did you talk about?

I told him that I had reported a coworker’s [Juliet Huddy] nasty email to me, calling me a slut. She accused me of having an affair with Jesse Jackson Sr. Jackson’s assistant had sued him for discrimination and threw the kitchen sink at him. The assistant claimed that Rev. Jackson had affairs with multiple women and I was one of them. [Huddy would later allege that her own future at Fox News ended after she rebuffed sexual advances by Bill O’Reilly. She did not file a lawsuit but was paid a six-figure settlement, as reported by multiple media outlets.]

You’re a friend of Jesse Jackson Sr.?

Yes, I’m friendly with the whole family. I started in 2006, every Monday night, doing the Rainbow PUSH Expungement Clinic on the South Side, pro bono. I wanted to help inner-city people. Jesse was good to me. He prayed with my grandfather when he was dying; he worked with me on my cases; it was some of the most meaningful work of my career.

During your next and last meeting with Ailes, in May 2016, did you tell him what happened in Cortes’ office in February 2015?

Nope. We talked about Sports Court and growing SportsCourt.com which was a show I had on foxnews.com that was really successful. [That digital show, which Holder created and hosted, ended after she reported the alleged Cortes assault.]

What about O’Reilly, any incidents of inappropriate behavior from him?

No. I was on his show a handful of times. Hannity and O’Reilly didn’t like each other. If you’re on one person’s show, you become their property. And so I was the property of Sean and O’Reilly wouldn’t book me.

Did Hannity ever behave improperly toward you? He portrays himself as a kind of Boy Scout.

He is like a Boy Scout, plus. Sean and I had a really good friendship, and we had a great TV and radio chemistry.

Did you tell Hannity about Francisco Cortes?

Yep.

What did he say?

I would have killed that guy.” But as much as Sean is like a brother to me; he would say I’m a little sister to him, he has to watch out for himself. I’m not his real sister. I’m not his daughter. He has to focus on getting by.

Why did you keep the sexual assault to yourself?

There was another culture at Fox; all of these women who were victimized, they all knew about O’Reilly, and they didn’t do anything to protect each other. You look at how they responded when Gretchen Carlson complained. They came out and said the nastiest things about her. [Carlson settled with 21st Century Fox for $20 million, Vanity Fair reported.] I had other things going on in my life, and, on top of that, my mother was dying.

In March, the New York Times’s Emily Steel wrote a detailed piece about your experience at Fox News. How did that come about?

I had been suppressing this. It had been boiling up. Emily Steel sent me a direct message on Twitter. She wanted to know if there were other stories about Roger. I answered her that I have nothing to say about Roger, but I know somebody who was sexually assaulted by a Fox News executive.

Describing what happened to me in Cortes’s office felt like letting the cat out of the bag. I said, holy shit, I’m going to be quoted in the New York Times. That was in July 2016 and it led to the worse six months of my life. For the next two months, I started to break down, to the point where, in early September, I had like these hallucinations. I called one of my closest advisers in the middle of the night and I said, “I think I’m bipolar. This is what happened to me. I don’t know what to do. I can’t get out of bed.” I got help. I went to a psychiatrist. I went to therapists.

And then you reported it?

In September 2016 I went to Fox. I reported it. Then, a month later, on October 21, I told them who it was, because before I still didn’t have the courage. They fired Cortes on October 31. [Fox News and Holder then released a joint statement: “Immediately after Ms. Holder notified Fox News of the alleged incident, the Company promptly investigated the matter and took decisive action, for which Ms. Holder thanks the network."]

So for month after month after the assault, you and Cortes are both working at Fox News. Any contact with him?

He would walk by my desk all the time and talk about how he was going to run or work out. A year later he saw me on TV one morning and he sent me an email to come to his office. I said no. He said, “What are you afraid of? Don’t be afraid.”

Back to Hannity: You had this repartee with him on both radio and TV in which he’d question you about your boyfriends and dating life and ask when you were going to get married. I found it weird. You didn’t?

I thought it was good banter. When you’re just trying to make your way; his radio show has 17 million listeners. It bothered me in the beginning. He said, “Oh, Tamara, stop being so sensitive.” He’s a friend of mine—a good man, who took good care of me personally after my mom died—and I’d never say anything bad about him. But, yes, it bothered me.

It’s often noted that Fox News women have a kind of uniform that accentuates cleavage and long, bare legs. Did someone instruct you how to dress?

The wardrobe department gave me dresses. We all wore the same dresses, well almost all. Megyn Kelly bought her own wardrobe, but she started out wearing the same stuff we wore.

What are your politics? Watching you over the years I thought you could sometimes seem almost in sync with Hannity’s views. I remember you saying that you voted for Obama in ’08 but not ’12. Who did you vote for in ’12? And who did you vote for in ’16?

Romney in ’12 and Hillary in ’16. I’m a progressive. I’m a feminist. I thought about voting for Trump in the beginning, when he first ran. I told Sean Hannity, “I’m going to go on your show and say I support him.” I went on and I wasn’t ready to say that.

Let’s move to the future. What’s on your calendar, besides house hunting in Chicago?

I reached out to Gloria Steinem and told her I was one of the victims at Fox News. I’m meeting with her later this month. I want to explore if there are ways to organize something together.

I know I want to help women. I want to do women’s rights work. Maybe I want to represent women who have been sexually assaulted, so I can say, “I understand. I’ve been on your side.”

I want to prove that my career in television is not over. My agent had warned me that would happen if I reported the assault. I want to get back into doing standup comedy. I was a student at Second City and performed in New York at Gotham. I definitely think that now is the time for women to prove that being a victim of assault is not a scarlet letter. I really want to do meaningful work. I feel like the last five years were not meaningful.

Coming full circle, how did you end up moving to Chicago for law school?

My college sweetheart played football at the University of Arizona. He then got drafted and played for the Bears, so I followed him here. I got engaged and then called off the wedding three months before the date. I was 26. [She doesn’t offer his name and says no one would recognize it if she did.]

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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