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How a Case In opposition to Fox Information Tore Aside a Media-Preventing Regulation Agency


Final April, dozens of legal professionals and their visitors gathered on the Columbus Inn in Wilmington, Del. The revered restaurant, with roots tracing again greater than two centuries, was as soon as a hangout for Buffalo Invoice. But on this cloudless night time, the group would have been comfortable to be partying virtually wherever.

Hours earlier, the legal professionals and their shopper, Dominion Voting Methods, had negotiated a unprecedented $787 million settlement with Fox Information. The deal was struck moments earlier than opening arguments in a hotly anticipated defamation trial, wherein Fox was accused of airing inflammatory lies that Dominion had thwarted Donald J. Trump within the 2020 presidential election.

Now the corporate’s two major regulation companies might benefit from the spoils.

Susman Godfrey would pocket a thick slice of the settlement that Fox had simply wired over.

Clare Locke, a smaller agency that focuses on the area of interest discipline of defamation regulation, wouldn’t get a reduce of the settlement. However Dominion had already paid it tens of millions of {dollars} in charges, and the victory supplied the agency the potential for one thing even higher.

Run by the husband-and-wife staff of Tom Clare and Libby Locke, the agency had helped popularize efforts by rich and highly effective shoppers to assault information organizations and delegitimize or kill unfavorable articles. Ms. Locke specifically had taken to publicly arguing that a lot of the information media was unethical, although she additionally voiced assist at no cost speech.

The triumph towards Fox gave the agency’s founders a chance to widen their enchantment. They might argue that Clare Locke was not an enemy of the free press or the First Modification, however a champion of reality and a guardian of democracy.

On the Columbus Inn, the exhausted however jubilant legal professionals drank and toasted each other late into the night.

“Celebrating tonight,” Ms. Locke wrote in an e-mail at 10:55 p.m. She added, “It’s a bit loopy right here on our finish.”

It was even crazier than she realized. The case had made authorized historical past — however it had additionally torn the agency aside.

Friction amongst legal professionals at Clare Locke had been constructing for years, and far of it centered on Ms. Locke. Her colleagues chafed at her administration fashion. Some feared that her public embrace of conservative causes, together with on Fox Information, was alienating shoppers.

Then got here Dominion.

Mr. Clare had been dedicated to the case since late 2020. Ms. Locke had at instances publicly boasted concerning the Dominion lawsuit, too — however she additionally repeatedly tried to tug her agency off the case, together with shortly earlier than the trial was set to start, based on a number of individuals with data of the agency’s inside workings. Lots of the greater than two dozen individuals interviewed for this text requested anonymity to keep away from skilled repercussions.

Whereas Ms. Locke’s efforts failed, that they had shattered morale and confidence contained in the small however formidable agency.

As she made her rounds at nighttime, crowded room on the Columbus Inn, Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke didn’t know that almost all of their agency’s companions had already determined to resign.

In a collection of letters totaling practically 60 pages, Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke mentioned The New York Occasions was spreading falsehoods about them and their agency. They mentioned the agency had not tried to get off the Dominion case: “On the contrary, Tom and Libby have been pushing for the agency to have an excellent bigger function.”

The pair accused The Occasions of counting on sources “with a vested curiosity in maligning Tom and Libby’s fame to develop their very own fledgling enterprise.” They usually mentioned that Clare Locke had confronted The Occasions in court docket and that the article was “clearly looking for to strengthen the paper’s place in pending and future litigation.”

Earlier than beginning their boutique defamation store, Mr. Clare, 53, and Ms. Locke, 44, labored on the large worldwide regulation agency of Kirkland & Ellis, the place each have been companions.

Mr. Clare, a workhorse who typically billed practically 3,000 hours a 12 months, had been an understudy to a senior companion whose apply included high-profile defamation instances. Ms. Locke arrived at Kirkland in 2006 after graduating from Georgetown College’s regulation college, the place she’d led the native chapter of the conservative Federalist Society. Mr. Clare quickly grew to become a mentor.

In 2014, they based Clare Locke. The general public rationalization, which they recounted in interviews through the years, was that that they had grown annoyed at Kirkland, which typically blocked them from taking defamation instances that conflicted with the agency’s bread-and-butter work for company shoppers.

There was extra to their origin story, although. Senior companions at Kirkland had fielded complaints that Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke, who on the time have been married to different individuals, have been having an affair, based on six present and former Kirkland staff. Ms. Locke typically reported to Mr. Clare.

Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke denied on the time that they have been romantically concerned. However Kirkland companions informed them that if the connection continued, no less than one in every of them must go away the agency, 4 of the present and former staff mentioned.

Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke mentioned that “this isn’t true and any suggestion on the contrary can be false and defamatory.” (A Kirkland spokeswoman declined to remark.)

Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke arrange their agency within the rich Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., close to the place they each lived with their respective spouses and youngsters. They recruited a small group of legal professionals and employees members from Kirkland to hitch them.

One morning in 2015, the brand new agency’s legal professionals have been stunned to obtain a mass e-mail from Ms. Locke’s husband, Spencer R. Fisher. He wrote that he had found that Ms. Locke’s relationship with Mr. Clare was greater than skilled. Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke had beforehand assured staff that they weren’t romantically concerned, based on Megan L. Meier and Andy Phillips, two of Clare Locke’s first recruits. Mr. Fisher’s e-mail planted seeds of mistrust, with some staff starting to fret about their capacity to speak brazenly with their bosses.

Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke denied telling Ms. Meier and Mr. Phillips that they weren’t romantically concerned, they usually mentioned the workers didn’t point out considerations a few lack of belief.

Mr. Fisher, in an e-mail to The Occasions, didn’t reply questions concerning the message he had despatched to Clare Locke staff and others. “Libby is just not solely a superb lawyer, but additionally a compassionate and giving individual,” he mentioned. “She has a robust sense of ethics and accountability, and he or she is all the time keen to assist these in want.”

Clare Locke’s fortunes quickly soared. In 2016, the agency gained a roughly $3 million jury verdict on behalf of a dean on the College of Virginia who had been defamed by a deeply flawed article in Rolling Stone journal. The victory generated nationwide headlines.

A procession of profitable shoppers got here calling for assist combating the media. There have been hedge fund kingpins and Silicon Valley executives accused of non-public or enterprise misconduct. There have been politicians going through allegations of sexual improprieties. There have been litigious foreign businessmen. There was a wing of the Sackler family, of OxyContin notoriety. There have been Russian oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, though Clare Locke has since stopped representing him.

“Preserve calm and file libel fits,” learn a framed sign hanging in Clare Locke’s workplace.

The agency represented the previous Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Project Veritas, the group of right-wing provocateurs, in lawsuits towards The Occasions. The Mission Veritas case is ongoing.

Litigation, nonetheless, tended to be a final resort. Extra continuously, Mr. Clare, Ms. Locke and their colleagues sought to derail or form tales earlier than publication. To do that, they cranked out warning letters to reporters, editors, publishers and their legal professionals making an attempt to poke holes in deliberate articles and accusing journalists of bias, unethical conduct and getting details mistaken. Citing the potential of litigation, the letters typically instructed information organizations to protect all paperwork, notes and different supplies related to their reporting.

Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke used comparable techniques as The Occasions ready this text. In a single e-mail to a Occasions lawyer, Ms. Locke referred to as this reporter “a misogynist and a snake.” She and Mr. Clare informed The Occasions to protect all paperwork associated to this text.

The pair mentioned they solely pursued media shops that received details mistaken, they usually denied making an attempt to kill unfavorable articles. “The agency takes shoppers who’ve legitimate complaints about how they have been mistreated by the media,” they mentioned.

“They’re fierce advocates for his or her shoppers and never for themselves,” mentioned Leland Vittert, a former Fox Information correspondent who’s now an anchor on the cable community NewsNation. He mentioned he grew to become associates with Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke after they helped his household’s enterprise in Michigan confront unfavourable native media protection in 2016. “I’ve all the time seen them as individuals who simply care concerning the reality.”

Clare Locke usually charged by the hour; Mr. Clare’s price typically was about $1,800, based on individuals with data of the agency’s funds. (Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke wouldn’t talk about the agency’s funds however mentioned that they cost the identical hourly price.) The agency typically required shoppers to pay tens of 1000’s of {dollars} in upfront retainers — and extra if the shopper needed to explicitly threaten to sue. Even pretty anodyne letters to media organizations might value shoppers practically six figures.

Earlier than lengthy, Clare Locke was pulling in tens of tens of millions of {dollars} a 12 months in income. Whereas the agency had a number of companions, Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke have been the one two with possession stakes, and the individuals conversant in the agency’s funds estimated that the founders every took dwelling tens of millions of {dollars} a 12 months.

In 2017, after divorcing their spouses and about three years after beginning their agency, they married. Ms. Meier, the primary recruit to their agency, officiated their Georgetown marriage ceremony.

The couple purchased a $4.3 million home down the road from their agency’s places of work. They bought a lakefront dwelling in Ms. Locke’s native Georgia and spent lengthy stretches at a property within the Turks and Caicos, based on public information and acquaintances. Mr. Clare piloted the agency’s Cessna jet between these and different places.

Colleagues described each Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke as good and hard-working; of their written response to The Occasions, the couple famous that she twice returned early from maternity leaves “due to her dedication to her work and shoppers.”

In different methods, although, they differed. He was risk-averse and calm, colleagues mentioned. She was entrepreneurial and may very well be impetuous. At a convention final fall, Mr. Clare and different media legal professionals have been onstage discussing the Dominion case when Ms. Locke interrupted from the viewers to specific her view that the media has too many authorized protections, based on panelists, a few of whom mentioned they have been shocked by her outburst. “We wish to joke that ours is a narrative of fireside and ice,” Mr. Clare mentioned on a podcast final 12 months.

Thanks partially to the high-profile Rolling Stone victory, Ms. Locke grew to become a well-liked reserving for TV reveals and at public occasions to debate media regulation and the scope of the First Modification.

At a Federalist Society convention, she argued in favor of unmasking journalists’ confidential sources, which might symbolize a break from longstanding authorized precedents and the legal guidelines of many states. At that convention and elsewhere, she referred to as for the overturning of a collection of Supreme Court docket choices that made it more durable for public figures to win libel lawsuits — a stance that has gained assist from no less than two justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, and would usually profit her agency’s shoppers.

Behind the scenes, Ms. Locke helped Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida manage an event final 12 months to argue for diluting authorized protections for the media, based on emails and different paperwork that The Occasions obtained by way of public information requests.

Ms. Locke additionally appeared 3 times on Tucker Carlson’s top-rated Fox Information present. He praised her as “some of the profitable legal professionals on this small however essential discipline” of defamation regulation.

In inner Slack messages that the agency offered to The Occasions, Ms. Locke’s colleagues applauded their boss’s performances on Fox Information. Privately, although, some nervous about what shoppers would consider the agency’s associating with a present that often trafficked in xenophobia and falsehoods.

About three weeks after the 2020 election, Mr. Clare was getting ready for Thanksgiving when he received a cellphone name from a consultant of Dominion.

Conspiracy theorists have been flooding the airwaves and social media with false accusations that Dominion’s voting expertise, in use in 28 states, was partly in charge for Mr. Trump’s defeat. Trump allies like Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Lindell have been claiming that the corporate had modified or canceled individuals’s votes and that it was managed by the Venezuelan authorities, amongst different baseless fees. Shops like Fox Information and One America News amplified the falsehoods.

Dominion’s enterprise was beneath siege. Its staff confronted threats.

Mr. Clare agreed to take the corporate on as a shopper. “We acknowledged immediately simply how momentous a difficulty this was, not just for Dominion, however for your entire nation and the integrity of elections,” he later told Reuters.

Mr. Clare and his colleagues started sending scores of cease-and-desist letters warning Trump allies, media personalities and information organizations that they have been disseminating defamatory lies. The aim was twofold: to cease the smears of Dominion and, failing that, to create a paper path exhibiting that the potential defendants had been placed on discover.

The lies continued.

In January 2021, shortly after a Trump-inspired mob attacked the Capitol, Dominion introduced on Susman Godfrey, a litigation powerhouse with greater than 150 legal professionals. It had develop into clear that Dominion would file a slew of lawsuits and that Clare Locke was too small to deal with all of them by itself. As well as, Clare Locke was charging Dominion by the hour, and the payments have been already piling up. Susman Godfrey agreed to take the case on contingency, that means it will get a reduce of any settlement or damages however wouldn’t cost the corporate within the meantime. (Susman Godfrey represents The Occasions in a copyright lawsuit towards OpenAI and Microsoft.)

The grievance towards Fox was filed in March 2021, in state court docket in Delaware, the place Dominion and Fox have been each integrated. Together with reveals, it ran to 441 pages. It accused Fox of knowingly offering a platform for visitors to lie about Dominion, and it accused quite a few hosts, together with Mr. Carlson, Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs, of endorsing and repeating these lies. The go well with sought greater than $1.6 billion in damages.

Susman Godfrey took the lead on the lawsuit, however Clare Locke had some essential assignments. It was largely accountable for keeping off Fox’s motions to dismiss the case. Mr. Clare and his colleague Ms. Meier additionally dealt with depositions of some essential Fox figures. One was Mr. Carlson, who emerged from his August 2022 deposition rattled by Mr. Clare. “It was so unhealthy,” he fumed in a leaked video, “the hate that I felt for that man.”

The largest bombshells emerged from the invention course of, wherein Dominion’s legal professionals received to sift via Fox staff’ emails, textual content messages and different information.

They discovered that Fox Information had an inner analysis operation, referred to as the “Brainroom,” that had concluded that the allegations about Dominion switching votes have been “100% false.” Hosts, producers and executives had repeatedly written to at least one one other that they knew the community was broadcasting false claims. “Sidney Powell is mendacity,” Mr. Carlson had written to his producer in November 2020, whilst Fox stored placing her on air.

This sort of documentation was like manna for the Dominion staff. Legal professionals zapped messages forwards and backwards marveling at what they have been studying. “I’m undecided I’ll ever see that kind of proof once more,” Mr. Clare mentioned on a panel last year.

Regardless of the obvious energy of Dominion’s case, Ms. Locke was sad.

On a number of events in late 2022 and early 2023, Mr. Clare informed colleagues that he had mentioned the case along with his spouse and that she needed the agency to cease engaged on it, based on a number of individuals with data of the dialog, together with Daniel P. Watkins, one of many Clare Locke companions on the Dominion go well with. Mr. Clare informed colleagues that he was inclined to grant Ms. Locke’s want.

“She didn’t need us to work on the case and was very expressive about it,” mentioned Mr. Watkins, who later left to start out a brand new agency.

Mr. Clare denied making the remarks about quitting. “The agency didn’t need to get off the case, and it didn’t,” he and Ms. Locke mentioned of their written response. The 2 mentioned they pushed for a bigger function on the case however declined to supply particulars.

Ms. Locke informed those who Clare Locke wasn’t being adequately paid for its intensive work. One difficulty was that the payment association the agency had negotiated with Dominion imposed a cap on the full quantity that may very well be billed, a restrict that was quick approaching. At one level, Ms. Locke mentioned the agency would wish to cease working as quickly as that cap was hit, even when it occurred in the midst of the trial, based on individuals conversant in the inner deliberations.

Some legal professionals concerned within the Dominion litigation doubted that was the total rationalization. They believed that Ms. Locke needed to ditch Dominion partially as a result of her regulation agency and husband have been in secondary roles and he or she had barely any direct involvement within the high-profile case. Mr. Watkins famous that Ms. Locke at instances would change the topic when he and his colleagues started excitedly discussing what they considered the case of the century.

“She was upset when issues didn’t revolve round her,” Mr. Watkins mentioned.

Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke dismissed that as “demonstrably false and completely ridiculous, to not point out utterly sexist.” Whereas Ms. Locke was not listed in court docket filings as a lawyer on the Dominion case, they mentioned she made “many contributions,” together with serving to put together for and sitting in on the deposition of Mr. Carlson.

Mr. Clare’s colleagues informed him repeatedly that quitting the case can be a public embarrassment as a result of individuals would assume that Dominion had fired the agency, based on legal professionals with data of the discussions.

Finally, Mr. Clare agreed to remain on the case.

The trial was scheduled for mid-April. Legal professionals descended on Wilmington weeks prematurely. The Dominion staff booked total flooring of the DoubleTree lodge subsequent to the court docket advanced.

Mr. Clare was one of many few Dominion legal professionals not staying in Wilmington; to the irritation of some Clare Locke and Susman Godfrey legal professionals, he spent a lot of the first two weeks of April within the Turks and Caicos. He arrived in Wilmington the day earlier than the trial was initially scheduled to start.

Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke mentioned he was absolutely engaged in trial preparation whereas working remotely. He wasn’t scheduled to cross-examine witnesses till later within the trial.

The choose urged the 2 sides to take a ultimate stab at settling. Negotiations went down to the wire. Lastly, simply as opening arguments have been about to start out, there was a deal: Fox would pay Dominion $787.5 million.

The choose introduced the settlement to a surprised courtroom. Earlier than the legal professionals headed to the Columbus Inn, Fox wired the cash to Dominion’s accounts. (In an announcement for this text, Dominion mentioned that it was grateful to all of its legal professionals “for his or her world-class assist.”)

It was one of the largest defamation settlements in U.S. historical past, however it appeared to undercut an argument Ms. Locke had been making about constitutional protections of the media.

For years, she had been calling for the Supreme Court docket to overturn its well-known 1964 ruling in New York Occasions v. Sullivan, which required public officers to beat excessive hurdles to win defamation instances. Ms. Locke and her allies argue that Sullivan, in addition to a handful of subsequent choices, makes all of it however not possible to carry the media accountable after they wrecked reputations.

However the Sullivan precedent didn’t get in the best way of Fox’s being held to account to the tune of practically $800 million.

Ms. Locke, nonetheless, didn’t again down. To her, the Dominion lawsuit revealed a basically dishonest media that had been emboldened by undeserved constitutional protections. “I believe the settlement reveals simply how comfy the mainstream press has develop into beneath the Sullivan regime mendacity to the American public,” she said the week after the deal.

Regardless that Clare Locke had caught with Dominion, questions on its dedication to the case had sapped some companions’ confidence within the agency’s management — the most recent in a protracted record of grievances.

Some companions felt that as a result of they didn’t have fairness stakes within the agency, they have been being underpaid. They have been sad when the agency employed a lawyer from Mission Veritas, a company whose tradecraft included deceptive tactics, with out consulting the companions. They resented what they noticed as Ms. Locke’s harsh remedy of some subordinates. They usually nervous that potential shoppers can be turned off by the notion of Ms. Locke as an ideological warrior.

By the point of the Dominion settlement, 4 Clare Locke companions — Ms. Meier, Mr. Watkins, Mr. Phillips and Dustin Pusch — had determined to give up to start out their very own regulation agency.

Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke mentioned that the 4 “by no means expressed ‘frustrations’ or ‘resentment’ to Tom or Libby” and had mentioned in self-evaluation memos that that they had confidence within the agency and its administration. They mentioned that the companions had every earned tens of millions of {dollars} and that a few of them had praised the agency’s compensation insurance policies.

One morning in early August, the 4 companions gathered in a convention room in Clare Locke’s places of work, based on Mr. Watkins and different individuals conversant in the assembly. The agency’s two founders joined by way of Zoom.

Ms. Meier and her colleagues broke the information: They have been going to difficulty a news release saying the creation of their new agency, which might be referred to as Meier Watkins Phillips Pusch. Except for Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke, there can be just one remaining companion at their agency.

The 2 founders appeared surprised. Mr. Clare, whose digital camera was off for a lot of the assembly, mentioned he wasn’t certain that the agency would have the ability to proceed to function. (Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke mentioned that “there was NEVER a second when anybody thought or mentioned that the agency wouldn’t survive.”)

Ms. Locke requested when the departures have been efficient. “Twenty minutes in the past,” Mr. Watkins responded.

There was silence. Ms. Locke started to cry.

Any considerations about Clare Locke’s capacity to maintain working rapidly proved unfounded. The agency replenished its ranks by selling associates to companions and hiring new legal professionals, together with another veteran of Mission Veritas.

“Clare Locke is a greater and stronger regulation agency immediately than earlier than the departures,” Mr. Clare and Ms. Locke mentioned. They mentioned the previous companions’ “true motivation” for creating their very own agency was to grab for themselves a multimillion-dollar payment from an ongoing defamation lawsuit, which Mr. Watkins and others had filed on behalf of an organization referred to as Kytch whereas at Clare Locke.

Mr. Phillips disputed that. He mentioned that Kytch fired Clare Locke final fall, after the 4 companions had created their new agency, which is now representing the corporate. (Clare Locke this month filed a lawsuit looking for authorized charges from Kytch.)

On the identical time, Clare Locke stored attracting headline-worthy shoppers.

Final fall, Harvard’s president, Claudine Homosexual, got here beneath hearth from activists and alumni just like the hedge fund supervisor Invoice Ackman, who accused her of plagiarism. The college employed Clare Locke to defend Ms. Homosexual and to warn The New York Publish concerning the prospect of litigation if it revealed articles concerning the allegations. The Publish ran its tales, and Ms. Homosexual quickly resigned as president.

Then Clare Locke started representing Mr. Ackman. In January, Enterprise Insider published articles accusing his spouse, Neri Oxman, of plagiarism. Mr. Ackman employed Clare Locke to write down a 77-page letter threatening the outlet with litigation if it didn’t retract the claims. Enterprise Insider has stood by its articles.

In a recent interview with The Occasions, Mr. Ackman mentioned he was upset with the media’s energy “to destroy lives.” Saying the letter on X, he called Ms. Locke and Mr. Clare “the rock stars of defamation regulation. They need to be your first name if one thing like what occurred to Neri and me occurs to you.”

Their agency, Mr. Ackman famous, was “finest identified for its current illustration of Dominion.”

Kitty Bennett contributed analysis.


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