Fox News and a Donald Trump supporter worked together to make up a story about the murder of Seth Rich, a former Democratic National Committee aide, in order to distract viewers from growing concerns regarding Russian collusion, according to claims made in a lawsuit that has been obtained by TheWrap.
Longtime contributor Rod Wheeler filed the lawsuit against Fox News Channel on Tuesday in the Southern District of New York. Wheeler said in the legal filing that Fox News and Trump supporter Ed Butowsky sought to shift public attention away from Russia and fabricated quotes to help the narrative. The suit claims that an article by Malia Zimmerman was published to “establish that Seth Rich provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails to shift the blame from Russia.”
Rich was murdered last year in what police call a botched robbery, but multiple conspiracy theorists have said his death had something to do with WikiLeaks.
Fox News president Jay Wallace told NPR there was no “concrete evidence” that false or misleading quotes were attributed to Wheeler. Fox News eventually retracted the story about Rich, saying it did not meet the network’s “high degree of editorial scrutiny.”
21st Century Fox, reporter Malia Zimmerman and wealthy Trump supporter Butowsky are named as defendants in the suit. The first page of the suit quotes a voicemail and text from Butowsky, in which he wrote that President Trump himself had reviewed unpublished drafts of the Fox News story just before it went to air and was published. The text said Trump wanted the story out “immediately.”
“Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article,” the text read, according to the lawsuit. “He wants the article out immediately. It’s not all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure,” Butowsky’s text to Wheeler went on, according to the suit. The “president” referred to in this text message is President Donald Trump, the suit, which includes an image of the alleged text, says.
According to the legal filing, the fabricated quotes by Wheeler include: “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks.”
“Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover,” the suit claims.
Fox News president Jay Wallace provided the following statement to TheWrap: “The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, FOX News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.”
The lawsuit says that Butowsky is “an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and opponent of Hillary Clinton, and a friend to former Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.”
Wheeler is a former Washington D.C. Police homicide detective and current private investigative consultant, crime analyst and Fox News contributor. The suit says Butowsky hired Wheeler to investigate Rich’s murder.
“As it turned out, Butowsky and Zimmerman were not simply Good Samaritans attempting to solve a murder. Rather, they were interested in advancing a political agenda for the Trump Administration,” the suit says.
The suit continues: “Specifically, it was their aim to have Mr. Wheeler confirm that: Seth Rich was responsible for the leak of DNC emails to WikiLeaks; and Seth Rich was murdered by a Democrat operative because he leaked the emails to WikiLeaks.”
According to the court document, Butowsky and Zimmerman sought to link Rich to leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks and debunk reports the Russians were actually responsible for the DNC hacks.
“Rod Wheeler unfortunately was used as a pawn by Ed Butowsky, Fox News and the Trump administration to try and steer away the attention that was being given about the Russian hacking of the DNC e-mails,” Wheeler’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, told NPR.
Back in May, Rich’s family blasted Fox News and other outlets for promoting unfounded versions of the story.
“It’s sad but unsurprising that a group of media outlets who have repeatedly lied to the American people would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda,” a spokesman for the Rich family told Business Insider at the time. “I think there is a special place in hell for people like that.”
Wheeler also accused Fox News of racial discrimination in the lawsuit.
“Mr. Wheeler, who is Black, was hired by Fox as a contributor in 2005. Mr. Wheeler is not a full time employee and, as such, is paid a set amount for each appearance he makes on Fox programming rather than a set salary. Further, Mr. Wheeler is not provided benefits by Fox,” the suit says. “Throughout his career with Fox, Mr. Wheeler’s white colleagues with comparable or inferior skills, expertise and experience have received more air time, made more appearances and been hired into full time positions. As a result, these white colleagues make more money, receive more notoriety and, in many cases, receive valuable benefits.”
Wheeler is seeking a trial by jury and punitive damages.
A Fox News insider told TheWrap that attorney Doulas Wigdor is simply attempting to generate attention in search of a payday.