These Local News Stars Bounced From Scandal to the Newsmax Anchor Desk

·7 min read
Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast, Getty
Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast, Getty

Towards the end of 2021, pro-Trump cable network Newsmax looked as if it was trying to pivot to some vague semblance of journalistic credibility.

After hiring two veteran producers to reshape the channel’s news division and bringing on longtime Fox News correspondent James Rosen, the channel dumped conspiracy-peddling personalities like reporter Emerald Robinson (she of “the vaccines are actually a Satanic tracking device” infamy) and former Trump adviser Steve Cortes, now an aggressively anti-vaccine, election-denying pundit.

With its two most recent additions, however, the fledgling network once again appears to be courting controversy. This time, giving prominent roles to two local news stars who’d lost their jobs amid scandal.

Bianca de la Garza, a former Boston news anchor who gained notoriety for being a central figure in a high-profile embezzlement case, is now a co-host of one of the network’s weekday afternoon broadcasts. And despite a history of racially inflammatory and anti-vaccine rhetoric, former Pittsburgh news anchor Wendy Bell debuted her own Newsmax show this past weekend.

The news of the two scandal-tainted personalities joining Newsmax left some network insiders scratching their heads. “The place is just weird,” one staffer remarked to The Daily Beast, while another joked that Newsmax may as well next hire Lara Logan—who was ghosted by Fox News for comparing Dr. Anthony Fauci to a Nazi war criminal. The network did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

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At one time, de la Garza was a fairly popular media figure in the New England area. Starting in 2007, she served as both the morning anchor and noon host for Boston’s ABC affiliate WCVB-TV and had risen to become something of a local TV star, with her work occasionally being featured on the national network.

Eventually, she ended up leaving the local outlet in 2014 to start her own company, Lucky Gal Productions, producing and hosting her own late-night show that aired across New England. Bianca Unanchored debuted in early 2015 and enjoyed some early local ratings success, but only lasted less than a year. From there, she launched a now-defunct cosmetics line, another short-lived program, and other myriad business ventures.

What was unknown until late 2019, though, was that de la Garza’s lifestyle and production company were financed by millions worth of embezzled funds.

Richard Hajjar, then the chief financial officer of Alden Shoe Company, first met de la Garza in 2012 and the pair soon became close friends. (De la Garza has repeatedly denied any romantic involvement with Hajjar.) The shoe executive soon began taking de la Garza on expensive vacations and showering her with lavish gifts, including a Mercedes-Benz, a $60,000 diamond bracelet, a $158,000 diamond ring, and shopping sprees, according to a lawsuit filed by Alden against de la Garza.

Aside from luxury items and a New York City co-op purchased for de la Garza, Hajjar also poured millions of stolen dollars into Lucky Gal. After Hajjar was arrested for embezzling roughly $30 million from Alden, the shoe company sued de la Garza, alleging that their former executive had transferred roughly $17 million of the funds he stole to her and her businesses.

Hajjar pleaded guilty to embezzlement in May 2021 and was sentenced to 70 months in prison and ordered to pay a $34 million restitution. He has so far paid back $5 million and surrendered his house.

During sentencing, Hajjar’s lawyers painted de la Garza as the center of the disgraced executive’s universe—a motivation for his frenzied embezzlement of funds. “What Rick thought was going to be an investment of a few hundred thousand dollars transformed into a need for a million, and then millions more,” attorney Cory Flashner wrote in a sentencing memo. “But Rick did not have millions, and he was in way over his head.”

Attorneys for de la Garza, who was never charged with a crime, argued she had no knowledge that Hajjar’s investments in her companies were embezzled. Furthermore, they claimed, the vast majority of the money de la Garza received had already been spent on her business ventures, outside of $81,000 and equity in her New York apartment. She finally reached a confidential settlement with Alden last year, returning the relatively tiny sum that remained.

After auditioning as a guest-host last summer and making a handful of appearances as a “media expert” on Newsmax, de la Garza announced last month that she had joined the network as co-anchor of John Bachman Now, which until now had been hosted solely by a former local news anchor named John Bachman.

The network never publicly acknowledged de la Garza’s hiring. Despite anchoring the midday broadcast, she is not currently under contract with Newsmax, suggesting she’s trying out with the network in a freelance capacity.

While de la Garza’s new gig flew largely under the radar, Newsmax did glowingly announce Wendy Bell’s arrival. Touting her as a 28-year broadcast veteran with 21 Emmy wins, the network said her new show, titled Wendy Bell Common Sense and airing Saturdays and Sundays, would “examine the news of the day with a lively approach to national issues.”

“Wendy Bell has had a remarkable career as a television journalist and radio host, and throughout it all has been an advocate of common sense and American values,” Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy wrote in a press release last week. “We are glad to have her on the Newsmax team.”

And though Newsmax trumpeted her experience as the “main anchor and most decorated reporter” at ABC’s Pittsburgh affiliate WTAE, and boasted of her success as “the lone conservative female voice” on southwestern Pennsylvania radio airwaves, the network made no mention of how or why she lost either of those gigs.

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“They have been courting her for a while,” one Newsmax insider told The Daily Beast of the network‘s management. “Probably hoping most people, like myself, don’t even know who she is.”

Bell was fired by WTAE in March 2016, after nearly 20 years at the station, over comments she made on Facebook that sparked accusations of racism. Following a deadly mass shooting at a Pittsburgh-area cookout, she wrote: “You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago... they are young black men, likely in their teens or early 20s.”

While opining that the shooters likely “have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs,” Bell—who is white—also praised a Black teen she said she saw working hard in a local restaurant. “He’s going to Make It,” she wrote.

She later sued WTAE for racial discrimination, demanding her reinstatement and claiming she wouldn’t have been fired from her job if she were Black. Bell settled with the station for undisclosed terms in 2018.

After landing at KDKA-AM radio, Bell sparked controversy again in September 2020 when she was yanked off the air after openly advocating for park rangers to shoot “on sight” protesters who pull down problematic monuments. (Her remarks were actually made several months earlier but drew attention after the clip went viral on social media.)

“My easy solution for the park rangers, and hopefully snipers who are hopefully going to be watching for this, is to shoot on sight. [Shooting noise] Shoot. Done,” she declared during her radio show. “No more messing with monuments. You wanna mess with a monument? Done.”

Entercom, which owns KDKA, confirmed that Bell was gone the following month, claiming the company agreed to mutually part ways with the conservative host. Bell’s subsequent gig at WJAS-AM in Pittsburgh lasted only a few months and her departure in May 2021 was attributed “to an unspecified personnel matter.”

Bell’s inflammatory rhetoric hasn’t only revolved around matters of race and crime. She once compared critics of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 rules to the victims of the 2012 Benghazi attacks. And last year she began posting false claims about widespread election fraud, inevitably veering into COVID-19 skepticism and anti-vaccine rhetoric.

In other words, despite her baggage, Bell may be a perfect fit for Newsmax.

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