Richard Jerome
November 01, 2004 12:00 PM

Back on March 23, FOX News Channel’s outspoken commentator Bill O’Reilly devoted an installment of The O’Reilly Factor, his top-rated nightly show, to sexual harassment. “When I was a thug coming up, I mean, I would say almost anything around women,” he admitted. “Now I don’t say anything, you know, that could be remotely taken—you know, because obviously, I’m a big target, and any kind of a thing like that stigmatizes you whether you’re guilty or not, doesn’t it?”

Now he has a chance to find out for himself. On Oct. 13, Andrea Mackris, a 33-year-old associate producer for The O’Reilly Factor, filed a sexual harassment suit against O’Reilly, claiming he spoke to her in a lewd manner on the phone and over dinner and made threats causing her to fear for her job. The suit came hours after O’Reilly and FOX had preemptively sued Mackris and her lawyer Benedict Morelli for allegedly trying to extort $60 million from the network in return for hushing up a “scandalous and scurrilous claim.”

O’Reilly, 55, who has been married for eight years to Maureen McPhilmy, 38, and is the father of a 6-year-old daughter and a year-old son, hasn’t commented on whether he said the things Mackris claims he said. “But he has stated publicly he has never engaged in sexual harassment,” notes his lawyer Ronald Green. On his show O’Reilly assured viewers, “This is all about hurting me and the FOX News Channel.”

According to Mackris’s suit, the harassment allegedly began when O’Reilly invited her to dinner “to discuss her future” in May 2002, two years after the St. Louis native graduated from Columbia School of Journalism and joined FOX. Over the course of a year, and several dinners, O’Reilly allegedly advised Mackris to “use your vibrator to blow off steam,” pressured her to engage in phone sex and suggested a ménage à trois with her and a friend (they declined).

In January 2004, Mackris left FOX for CNN’s Paula Zahn Now. Four months later, according to her suit, O’Reilly asked Mackris to dinner after hearing she was unhappy at CNN. She consented, “if the talk was professional.” He asked her back. “We had an eyeball-to-eyeball agreement,” Mackris told CNN’s Aaron Brown last week. “If I came back, he would never talk to me that way again.” But, her lawsuit says, when she reminded him “he’d done so to other women” (none have come forward), she claims he threatened, “If any woman ever breathed a word, I’ll make her pay so dearly she’ll wish she’d never been born.”

Still, Mackris returned to The O’Reilly Factor. How had she come back so readily if O’Reilly was being such a cad? “She loved her job at FOX,” Morelli explains, adding that it was only after her return that O’Reilly’s behavior became intolerable. In August the pundit allegedly called Mackris “and launched into a vile and degrading monologue about sex,” while apparently masturbating, the complaint says.

Later that month he allegedly called again, describing his fantasy of making love to her in a shower. Her lawsuit quotes at least one of these exchanges in such detail that some speculate Mackris was secretly taping (which is legal in New York). Morelli stops short of saying so, but if a tape exists, “it amounts to her blue dress,” says Kathleen Peratis, a Manhattan employment attorney not involved in the case. “For Monica Lewinsky, saving that dress was a little creepy, but it gave her irrefutable proof.”

FOX insiders say O’Reilly is showing the strain. “You can tell he’s had the wind knocked out of his sails,” says one. As for Mackris, “she’s known as a tough cookie,” says this staffer. Still, says Morelli, “there are good days and bad days. Sometimes it’s difficult when people are writing bad things about you.”

Now both sides are spinning in overdrive. FOX has petitioned Nassau County supreme court to have Mackris fired from her $93,000-a-year job, and Green claims to have sworn statements from an acquaintance who says Mackris planned to write a book and “bring O’Reilly down” and from another who said Mackris thought she could get $1 million from O’Reilly and buy an apartment. Morelli calls all of it “totally inaccurate” and has filed a new suit alleging that FOX is retaliating against Mackris. Meanwhile, the FOX newsroom is abuzz with details of the scandal. “If s more information,” says a FOX staffer, “than you want to hear about someone you work with.”

Richard Jerome. Liza Hamm, Diane Clehane, Lucia Greene and Jennifer Longley in New York

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