Focus has broadened beyond just payments to employees who accused Roger Ailes of harassment.
For the past several months, federal investigators from the Justice Department have been looking into potential financial misconduct at Fox News related to sexual harassment allegations. But the investigation has broadened to involve other aspects of the company’s behavior, according to CNN.
The initial investigation was reportedly triggered by revelations about financial settlements that were made to multiple staffers following allegations they were sexually harassed by former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who has since left the company.
Investigators are said to be exploring whether Fox News declared these payments properly in its financial statements, or if it disguised them somehow in order to avoid detection, and financial-crime experts from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service have been brought in to assist.
Justice Department staff have been interviewing those involved—including former employees at the network—for the past several weeks, CNN said. Investigators have been asking “how the shareholder money was spent, who knew, and who should have known.”
Fox News declined a request for comment.
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The Financial Times reported earlier this month that investigators were looking into the details of the payments and whether they were disclosed properly, and also said that U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigators were assisting.
Two former Fox News executives told the paper that settlements to women who accused Ailes of harassment were not disclosed, and that payments were “moved around different Fox News budgets.”
In addition to the payments, however, CNN said the investigation is also looking into a group of individuals who were known collectively as “friends of Roger,” some of whom were on the Fox News payroll, but had no official duties. One consultant reportedly earned $10,000 a month.
New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman, who wrote a book about Ailes, has said that the former chairman maintained a kind of “black ops” team that was used to harass anyone Ailes didn’t like—including reporters—and that this team was paid using Fox News funds.
According to one report, Ailes used private investigators to try and dig up information on journalists, including former Gawker Media editor John Cook. Ailes also reportedly paid a woman who pretended to date TV writer Brian Stelter (now at CNN) in order to try and get information about stories involving either himself or Fox News.
Whether the investigation will ultimately result in charges against Fox is unknown. The case was started by the Obama administration under U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has since been fired. Billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who controls Fox News through the holding company 21st Century Fox, is said to have a close relationship with President Trump.
Murdoch is said to be concerned about the fallout from the Ailes harassment cases, as well as the more recent allegations against former host Bill O’Reilly, in part because he is trying to acquire control of British broadcaster Sky for $14 billion.
The proposed acquisition is currently being assessed by broadcast regulator Ofcom, and one of the criteria that regulators are considering is whether the Murdoch family would be “fit and proper” owners of the company.
In addition to the cases involving Ailes and O’Reilly, Fox News has been hit by a number of other allegations, including a lawsuit from former anchor Andrea Tantaros, who says Fox hacked into her personal computer and engaged in illegal surveillance of her.
For some, these allegations have echoes of the News of the World case in which executives at the Murdoch-owned paper (which no longer exists) were found guilty of tapping into the phones of celebrities and politicians in 2011. The charges are part of the reason the Murdochs dropped a previous attempt to acquire control of Sky.