October 25, 2021

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Unlimited Technology

The tech entrepreneur who founded Trump’s go-to TV news network

Second of two stories

Two decades before Robert Herring Sr created the far-right TV channel One America News Network, he learned that a circuit board factory he owned was under an FBI investigation.

It was 1994. In retaliation, a court judgment reviewed by Reuters shows, Herring fired an employee who told the Federal Bureau of Investigation about illegal pollution at the plant.

Last year, a jury ruled that OAN fired a Black producer in retaliation for filing a racial discrimination complaint to Herring. The jury awarded the man $1.1 million.

The episodes provide a window into Herring’s pugnacious style and impatience with government regulation. A Reuters review of 33 court cases, many not previously reported, and interviews with two dozen associates reveal how the man running a once-obscure news channel made a fortune from scratch and came to play an outsize role in American politics.

Since November, Herring’s OAN has become a leading TV purveyor of false claims that the 2020 election was rigged against former President Donald Trump, helping fuel new voting restrictions and a wave of threats against election officials in several states.

The records and interviews depict Herring as a hard-driving executive with a knack for prescient timing. The court files, which include a federal pollution indictment against one of his former companies, also reveal a man prone to alleging conspiracies and engaging in scorched-earth litigation.

In a rare interview Wednesday, Herring told Reuters that criticism from former employees and Trump opponents does not faze him. In fact, he said, he appreciates the attention.

“At least we are making progress, where we’re getting out there,” Herring said. “We have to be out there and be known if we’re going to succeed in this business.”

Herring’s journey is in some regards the American dream: a high school dropout who loathed and later changed his given name, then evolved from a businessman of modest means to a sharp-eyed entrepreneur who saw opportunities others missed. Now, at 80, he sits atop an influential network at the center of a virulent national debate over politics and alternate realities.

“This man used to drive a concrete truck,” said Las Vegas entrepreneur Dennis Pierce, 60, who views Herring as a father figure. “He’s just a normal guy who busted his ass, never stopped working, never stopped imagining how it would all turn out.”

AMERICAN STORY: Robert Herring Sr built a fortune and a TV network, but his businesses also faced an environmental indictment and labor lawsuits, Reuters found. Jamie Scott Lytle/REUTERS

‘Plots revealed’

Like his favorite president, Herring runs a lean family business with his sons, Charles and Robert Jr. He too lives with his third wife, a Russian immigrant, in an 11,000-square-foot Southern California mansion perched on two manicured acres with sprawling views.

Despite his wealth, Herring shares demographic traits with many Trump base voters. He came of age in 1950s America. He lives in San Diego County, a region with a strong military presence and a close-to-the-border perspective on immigration. His views on China are shaped by decades of competing against Asian factories with cheap labor and lax regulation.

Though a conservative since the 1970s, Herring has on occasion donated to Democrats, including $4,600 to Hillary Clinton in 2007. Citing free-speech principles, Herring gave $15,000 to help rescue a 2004 university talk by leftwing filmmaker Michael Moore after the public college withdrew funding. Under oath, Herring said he once voted for Barack Obama for president. Still, the vast majority of his family’s nearly $500,000 in contributions has flowed to Republicans, and on OAN, liberals and Democrats are routinely lampooned.

Herring shares some of Trump’s flair for show business. Like Trump, Herring has invested in Las Vegas hotel projects and promoted fights with boxing’s Don King. Herring trademarked the phrases “Political Plots Revealed” and “Edge of Danger” for OAN program titles.

“If I think I’m right, I just go for it. … Fight it to the very end.”

On his network, people arrested during the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol are dubbed “political prisoners,” a meme that has gained wide use on the American right. The far-right Proud Boys, a violent group whose leaders have been charged in the insurrection, are described as a “conservative men’s club.” OAN correspondents have solicited more than $600,000 to fund “private” audits of the 2020 election. When OAN airs pro-Trump news, the ex-president often returns the favor.

“One America News (OAN), one of the fastest growing networks on television, and the ‘hottest,’ is doing a magnificent job of exposing the massive fraud that took place,” Trump said in May.

Herring told Reuters he does not believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected, even though a series of audits and recounts have affirmed the Democrat won the election. Herring has barred OAN staff from calling him “President Biden” on air until further audits are completed. “I’ve seen enough that I know the election was taken by force,” Herring said; no credible evidence has shown that to be true.

Reuters has reported on a series of threats nationwide against election officials who affirmed Biden’s win. Herring said he was unaware of the threats. “I think all people working on elections should be treated well, but there’s a lot of fake stuff going on, too,” he said.

Duncan L. Hunter, a U.S. congressman from San Diego from 1981 to 2009, said Herring should be feted for providing positive news about Trump that the mainstream media fails to report.

“Mr. Herring represents the very best of all of America because he is a guy who utilized his money and resources in a very important way, which is giving facts to the American people,” said Hunter, a Republican and an avid OAN viewer. “His service to his country has been enormous.”

Critics, including eight former employees interviewed by Reuters, portray Herring as an opportunist exploiting the current political divide.

“Their primary motivation is definitely not politics – it’s money,” said Martin Golingan, an OAN producer for nearly five years until April, when he was fired after publicly saying he worried his network’s programming likely played a role in stoking the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

“The Herrings run OAN on this McDonald’s business model where you keep the customer happy and the business runs itself. If the customers happen to be crazy conspiracy consumers, then that’s what they’re selling. They are grifters in the outrage culture,” Golingan added.

Herring called Golingan “very knowledgeable” but added, “he’s a liberal. He finally went overboard and I had to let him go.”

Herring has testified in litigation that he created OAN “to make money, number one.” He seized the chance after AT&T executives told him the market could use another conservative network, he testified. Further testimony shows AT&T’s DirecTV deal with Herring provided 90% of OAN’s revenue. AT&T said it has “never had a financial interest in OAN’s success and does not ‘fund’ OAN.”

One America News is among the many entities that pay Reuters to publish the news service’s stories, videos and pictures.

The court and regulatory files reviewed by Reuters, including microfilm records dating to 1977, are filled with thousands of pages of testimony by Herring and former employees. The material is so voluminous in part because the OAN founder rarely settles lawsuits but takes cases to trial, even when doing so could cost him more in legal fees than the other side is seeking.

“My case was a nickel-and-dime situation,” said former OAN producer Paul Levikow, who won $22,000 in a wage dispute, plus $50,000 in legal fees. “He would rather spend his money to fight something he knows he’s going to lose than pay someone off to make it go away.”

One of Herring’s largest court losses came last year, when a Black former producer, Jonathan Harris, won the $1.1 million verdict. “The theory of our case was simple,” lawyer Rodney Diggs said. “My client was fired the day after he filed his racial discrimination complaint.”

In court filings, Herring said he did nothing wrong in either case. He said Levikow was paid fairly and Harris was fired for poor performance and for deleting company computer files. Levikow and Harris disputed those contentions.

Herring was once asked in a 2012 deposition why he continues to litigate even when a settlement would cost less.

“Because if I believe I’m right, I will go to the end,” he replied.

It’s a trait Herring developed as a boy.

A boy named Alson

SCHOOL DAYS: Herring in high school, in a photo posted on Classmates.com

Born in 1941 in rural Louisiana, he cringed at his given name: Alson Shelby Herring.

Alson sounded feminine, too much like Allison, and once landed the boy in girls’ gym class, among other indignities. Court and school records show that Herring rebelled and began calling himself Robert or Bob. He didn’t legally change his name until 2005.

The sting never wore off. In 2019, Herring tried to avoid revealing his birth name during a deposition. When compelled to answer, he cited the torment of the kid in Johnny Cash’s song, “A Boy Named Sue.”

As a reminder of his roots, Herring keeps a picture of the single-room house where he spent his earliest years, close to the cotton fields of northeastern Louisiana. “I was born in a barn,” he said.

When he was about seven years old, the family moved to a farm near Bakersfield, California. “We were really poor,” Herring said. “For a time, we lived in a train boxcar.” Later, the family moved to post-war suburbs near Los Angeles.

Herring’s father died when he was a teenager, and he dropped out of high school. He said he quit following a dispute in which he refused an order to scrub the floors with a toothbrush as punishment for a minor infraction he’d committed. “I just left,” he said.

He earned an adult night-school degree, but did not attend college. He married his first wife at age 18; by age 24, the Herrings had four children. Herring worked as a chauffeur and owned several pet shops. “I got paid for teaching people how to groom poodles,” he said. Herring said he discovered that people in sales made more money, and had more fun, so he switched careers. He began selling circuit boards.

His first big break came in 1972, after he turned 30.

In a shrewd lease-purchase deal, he acquired a struggling local circuit board factory and renamed it Industrial Circuits.

The circuit board market was huge because virtually every electronics device, from a thermostat to a rocket, requires them. Much like the foundation for a house, a circuit board is typically a rigid, custom-made sheet of insulating material that serves as a platform to connect components of electronic systems, such as semiconductors, resistors and capacitors. The manufacturing process is complex, requiring as many as 100 steps to fabricate one circuit board.

“Southern California was a hotbed for circuit boards back in the day and Herring had great timing,” said Mike Buetow, editor of the trade publication Circuits Assembly.

By 1974, Herring was successful enough that the local Escondido Times-Advocate ran a profile titled “Little Guy Comes Full Circuit.” Herring was described as making the most of “this land of opportunity,” and he attributed his success to “the willingness to take a chance, that and luck.”

Still, he remained a man of relatively modest means, filings from his 1977 divorce with his first wife show. She drove a Volkswagen and their home had less than $70,000 in equity. Their most valuable assets were shares of company stock, about $80,000 in her name and $152,000 in his.

Finding gold

Herring’s side interests – show business and politics – began to generate headlines in the late 1970s. He helped revive a civic concert series, hiring nostalgia performers Helen Reddy and Ricky Nelson, briefly owned a weekly newspaper and joined the local Chamber of Commerce board.

He developed a habit of acting on news items that intrigued him. In 1981, he read that then-President Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael, a salesman for a defense contractor, quit his job after reports that he dropped his father’s name in letters to military officials. Herring made some calls and hired Michael Reagan as a salesman at Industrial Circuits.

MAKING A CONNECTION: Herring once hired Michael Reagan, son of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, as a salesman for one of his companies. REUTERS/Chris Keane/File Photo

“It was very nice of him to reach out because it was a very tough time for me,” said Reagan, now a columnist for OAN competitor Newsmax.

In 1988, shortly after his 47th birthday, Herring struck gold. He sold Industrial Circuits to the Japanese firm Toppan West Inc for $52 million.

A year later, Herring created a new circuit board company, Herco Technology, with sons Robert Jr and Charles as co-owners. They built a new factory in San Diego County and got to work.

Circuit board manufacturing can be a dirty process, creating wastewater saturated with heavy metals, including copper. Under its permit, Herco pledged to treat toxic waste before flushing it into the city treatment system that discharges into the Pacific Ocean.

FBI probe

In 1994, state court records show, a Herco employee repeatedly told supervisors the facility was illegally flushing copper. Late that year, records show, FBI agents and city investigators visited the Herco factory and the employee at his home.

In 1995, an FBI agent called Herring to ask about the environmental violations. State court records show Herring agreed to meet at the FBI’s office, arrived without a lawyer, told agents he was unaware of the problems and passed a lie detector test.

Two weeks later, Herring fired the employee who spoke to the FBI. The man sued Herco for retaliation and a jury awarded him $78,400 in damages.

Herring said the government was seeking to show the public it was trying to protect the environment. “They were looking for someone big enough to get a little attention but small enough to take on, and I guess that was us,” he said.

The FBI investigation continued. So did the pollution.

INSPECTION NOTES: A 1997 San Diego County inspection report details environmental issues at Herring’s company.

In June 1997, a resident near Herring’s factory called 911 to report “a yellow cloud” spewing into the air amid a release of nitric acid. A San Diego County inspector found “a dark brown sludge” covering a hazardous waste containment area. The inspector’s report noted “thousands of gallons” of improperly stored waste.

“It appears that it is standard operating procedure within Herco … to allow the spillage of hazardous materials and waste without requiring proper clean up,” the inspector wrote.

In November 1997, following a federal grand jury indictment, Herco pleaded guilty to one pollution count and agreed to pay a criminal fine of $170,000. Herring’s company continued to receive pollution violation notices from the county for nearly three more years, for releasing copper, cyanide and silver into the environment.

ENVIRONMENTAL CHARGE: The opening page of the federal indictment against Herco Technology.

Still, Herring prospered. He kept a yacht moored in San Diego harbor and owned four homes, records show. He invested $4 million in a concert venue at a Las Vegas casino resort run by one of the Republican Party’s biggest benefactors, the late Sheldon Adelson, said two associates involved.

Pierce, the Las Vegas businessman who considers Herring a mentor, said the OAN founder is as comfortable with a mogul like Adelson as he is with his gardener. Pierce would know, he said, because he met Herring while working as the landscaper for the entrepreneur’s homes and factories in the 1990s. They soon became friends and business associates.

“We’d hang out, put our feet up, drink a couple of Coronas, then we’d ride his jet skis,” Pierce said. “He’s just like your neighbor, except he ended up rich.”

Herring divorced his second wife in 1997. Under the settlement, he gave her the cat, the dog, the Mercedes and $1 million. The deal included an extra $600,000 if she vacated their home within a year.

Big deal, big lawsuit

The technology dot-com boom of the 1990s fueled brisk sales in the circuit board industry. But competition loomed from Asia, where labor-intensive circuit boards could be built cheaper, environmental rules were lax, and governments subsidized factories.

“It became a very tough, competitive environment,” said Matthew Holzmann, an industry veteran. “The Herrings could see the writing on the wall.”

In 2000, the Herrings sold Herco and a related company for $122 million in stock to publicly-traded Teradyne Inc, a global electronics company based near Boston.

But then Teradyne’s stock plummeted by about half in one year – and the $122 million fell to about $61 million. The Herrings sued, alleging Teradyne executives misled them during negotiations by saying the future looked promising.

“We were shorted,” Robert Herring Jr said years later in a deposition. Teradyne denied any wrongdoing, saying the company properly disclosed its finances before the deal and that market conditions simply shifted. The deal coincided with the start of the dot-com bust.

The Herrings lost their lawsuit against Teradyne, then filed a complaint against their own lawyers, alleging they’d missed a deadline, but lost again. Within two years, Teradyne closed the plant and laid off most former Herco workers.

‘Tantrums and meltdowns’

In 2000, at about age 59, Herring married his third bride, a Russian national half his age. A short while later, with a ton of cash, big plans and no network experience, he entered the TV business.

Herring and sons created WealthTV, a luxury lifestyle channel with shows about exotic cars, giant yachts, opulent travel and fine wine. Herring bought a 40,000-square-foot building, built state-of-the-art studios and assembled a staff. Two key hires: a general manager to run operations and an executive to sell WealthTV to cable and satellite providers.

As general manager, Herring hired Dean Harris, an associate in the Las Vegas casino venture.

Harris, a former stock broker, was a convicted felon barred from trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission, records reviewed by Reuters show. In 1999, Harris pleaded guilty to fraud, and the SEC said he received $1.3 million in kickbacks in a conspiracy to steal from an insurance company. Herring hired Harris about a year after he finished serving a 32-month federal prison sentence and gave him a 5% stake in WealthTV, court records show.

In an email to Reuters, Harris said his criminal conviction was unrelated to Herring in any way and that he did not tell Herring about it at the time. Herring said he did not know about Harris’ prison term until a Reuters reporter told him. “I can’t believe it.”

To sell WeathTV to cable and satellite providers, Herring lured Donna Thomas, an experienced TV executive. “We didn’t know really anything about selling the network, so we hired her,” Herring said. “She knew everybody in the industry.”

Thomas, who quit after eight months and sued Herring, declined to comment. Her lawsuit contended Herring went behind her back to clients, belittled her and acted unethically.

“My case was a nickel-and-dime situation. He would rather spend his money to fight something he knows he’s going to lose than pay someone off to make it go away.”

“Some clients expressed anger and demanded that I back off for periods of months due to the incursions of Mr. Herring,” Thomas said in a sworn statement reviewed by Reuters. “On many occasions his offers to clients were offensive to them and unheard of in the industry.”

The offers, meant to help land WealthTV on cable or satellite channels, included gambling chips, lobsters and a sports car, two former employees said in affidavits. In a deposition, a satellite executive confirmed he was offered the car.

In sworn statements, three former employees said they witnessed Herring return from lunch inebriated and then slam doors, yell and, on occasion, make employees, including Thomas, cry. “Herring would have tirades, temper tantrums and behavior meltdowns,” Thomas stated. “The result was a steady pressure of anxiety and fear.”

Herring’s lawyers said there was no evidence his lunch wine drinking affected his work, calling it “simply irrelevant to any issue in this case.” Herring said he drinks wine sometimes at lunch, but just one glass. His lawyers said Thomas quit because she didn’t keep up with Herring’s goal of closing deals faster; she disputed that contention.

At trial, Thomas won about $95,000, including legal fees. But for six months, Herring refused to pay the judgment. He did so only after Thomas’ lawyer placed a lien on WealthTV and threatened to have the sheriff’s department seize the network, records show.

“The idea that a corporation running a television station would play a game of chicken like that on a collection matter was really puzzling,” said Thomas’ attorney, Benjamin Pavone. “I remember thinking, ‘Who is this weirdo?’”

Herring said he can’t recall details of the judgment.

GLOVES OFF: Charles and Robert Herring signed a deal with Don King (center) in 2011 to air boxing on WealthTV. Via PR Newswire

‘Don’t get mad … get even!’

WealthTV struggled to win deals with major cable and satellite systems. In 2005, a frustrated Herring issued a press release in which he said he had invested “tens of millions of dollars” in WealthTV, but alleged that cable operators were “saving their channel space for new Sports, Gay, Foreign Language, Pornographic or Shopping Channels.”

By 2007, WealthTV was carried on cable systems representing less than 10% of U.S. homes. That amounted to a potential audience of perhaps 10 million, generally not enough to draw interest from national advertisers, records show. Herring couldn’t get some major systems to air WealthTV on a free trial basis, records show.

So, Herring launched a legal assault against four of America’s six largest cable companies to try to force them to carry WealthTV.

At the Federal Communications Commission, Herring alleged that Cox, Comcast, Bright House and Time Warner Cable refused to air WealthTV because it competed against a lifestyle network the cable companies co-owned. Herring told Reuters he believed this amounted to collusion, elbowing out smaller networks like his. The cable providers denied this.

During a 10-day FCC hearing, cable executives testified that they rejected WealthTV for good-faith business reasons, citing limited bandwidth for high-definition channels, similar content on better-branded channels and the Herrings’ inexperience with television.

“Bottom line, nice product, not worth an HD channel spectrum when we can see plenty of videos of wealthy travel locations and great restaurants on Travel and Food TV,” one cable executive testified. “And most importantly, no customer demand.”

FLAGSHIP: The One America News Network, headquartered in San Diego, has seen viewership rise as it devotes coverage to Donald Trump’s election falsehoods. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The Herrings pursued the case for five years, until March 2013, when an appeals court affirmed the FCC’s decision in favor of the cable operators.

Two days after the ruling, WealthTV anchor Graham Ledger took the stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a major gathering of conservative Republicans. Ledger announced the birth of One America News, an antidote to the “liberal mainstream media.”

OAN would debut on July 4, 2013, he said.

“This is going to be your network,” Ledger told the crowd of conservatives. Citing a line from the 1978 movie Animal House, he said, “Don’t get mad … get even!”

Kinship with Trump

In June 2015, when Trump launched his White House bid, Herring discovered a soulmate. Here was a candidate with whom he agreed on nearly every issue important to him: immigration, race, taxes, environmental regulation, climate change and China’s trade practices. Trump also understood that television news was show business.

“There’s almost nothing you can mention that I don’t agree with him on,” Herring said. “Sometimes I don’t like the way he says things, but as far as his actions and everything he’s done, I think he’s even better than I expected.”

Herring directed OAN staff to run Trump’s rallies live without interruption. The Herrings, previously light donors, began showering Republican causes and candidates with cash, records show, donating more than $350,000 since Trump’s announcement.

ON MESSAGE: During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump appeared on Sarah Palin’s OAN program. REUTERS/Screenshot

OAN still struggled to get the largest cable systems to air the conservative network, a problem Trump bemoaned in social media posts. Herring, too, railed in particular against his longtime nemesis, Comcast, which he’d battled before the FCC, and which owns left-leaning MSNBC.

“Is Comcast’s ‘HATRED’ of the President the reason why Comcast customers are denied access to @OANN?” Herring tweeted on June 10, 2019.

A month later, when a controversy erupted over OAN’s journalistic ethics, Herring seized the moment to allege a tangled Comcast conspiracy.

It began when The Daily Beast reported that an OAN reporter was also writing stories for the state-owned Russian TV network Sputnik. That evening, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow featured the story on her show.

“We literally learned today that that outlet the president is promoting shares staff with the Kremlin,” Maddow told viewers. “The most obsequiously pro-Trump rightwing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda. Their on-air U.S. politics reporter is paid by the Russian government to produce propaganda for that government.”

The OAN reporter, Kristian Rouz, issued a statement a short while later saying he wrote about 1,300 freelance articles for Sputnik, but has “never written propaganda, disinformation or unverified information.” A Sputnik spokesperson said the OAN journalist stopped writing for the Russian outlet in 2019; Rouz did not respond to an emailed interview request.

Herring’s lawyer denied any relationship with the Russians and alleged a different conspiracy. At the time, he noted that Maddow’s report came just a week after Charles Herring had again visited Comcast about airing OAN. “This does not appear to be a mere coincidence,” the OAN lawyer wrote. Comcast declined to comment.

At the time, an MSNBC lawyer defended Maddow’s commentary as both “substantially true” and protected free speech. But Herring filed a $10 million defamation suit against Maddow, MSNBC and Comcast. A federal judge dismissed it, Herring appealed and, in a unanimous decision this August, lost again.

As the loser, Herring’s company was ordered to pay the other side’s legal fees and costs. A person involved said Herring’s company paid $520,000 to lawyers for his network’s rival, Comcast.

To Herring, it was worth the money.

“If I think I’m right, I just go for it,” he said. “Fight it to the very end.”

Trump TV: Wing Man

By John Shiffman

Photo editing: Corinne Perkins

Art direction: John Emerson

Edited by Ronnie Greene

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