Rod Wheeler's lawsuit against Fox News is photographed Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, in Washington. Wheeler, an investigator who worked on the Seth Rich case claims Fox News fabricated quotes implicating the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer in the WikiLeaks scandal and coordinated with the Trump administration as it worked on the story. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
On Tuesday, a lawsuit was filed alleging that the White House worked with Fox News to push a conspiracy theory that became wildly popular on right-wing websites and even garnered brief attention from the mainstream media.
The suit, filed in the Southern District of New York by Douglas Wigdor on behalf of Rod Wheeler, names Fox News, Ed Butowsky and Malia Zimmerman as defendants. David Folkenflik of NPR said NPR had gained exclusive access to the suit.
At the heart of the lawsuit is a May story published by Fox News about the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich. Rich reportedly was killed July 10, 2016, while walking back to his Washington, D.C., apartment.
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones began pushing the narrative that Rich had given the leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks — an allegation that, if true, would debunk the claim that Russian agents were behind the hacking of the DNC servers.
The Fox News story quoted Wheeler, who was a longtime paid contributor to the network, as a private investigator hunting down the truth behind Rich’s murder. The Fox News story was retracted after its claims of a connection between Rich and the DNC leaks — mainly backed by quotes from Wheeler that he now claims he didn’t say — came under fire for lack of evidence.
Rich’s slaying is still unsolved, although D.C. police maintain their belief that it resulted from a robbery gone wrong.
What You Need to Know: WikiLeaks
Ed Butowsky is a wealthy Texan with ties to White House strategist Steve Bannon. The suit alleges that he met with former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and that in May, before the story ran, President Donald Trump saw the article. According to the suit, Butowsky texted Wheeler, “The president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately.”
On Tuesday, reporter Olivia Nuzzi of New York Magazine wrote on Twitter that Butowsky had refuted the story, saying Wheeler needed money and had sought a job in the Trump administration.
The byline on the Fox News story belonged to Malia Zimmerman, who has stayed quiet since the story was retracted in May. NPR reports that she is still with Fox News, working on stories unrelated to the Rich slaying.
Wheeler alleges that he was deliberately misquoted on two occasions. The quotes appeared in the Fox News story, after which Wheeler claims he contacted Zimmerman, saying that he was misquoted and the quotes should be removed. The suit says Zimmerman wanted to remove the contentious quotes, but her bosses at Fox News told her to leave them in the story.
The suit also says that after the story ran, Wheeler agreed to go on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on May 16 and did not reveal his misgivings about the story on-air — although he said on the show that he had no direct knowledge of Rich’s emails, according to NPR.
The suit further alleges that Wheeler, who is black, was the victim of racial discrimination at Fox News.
"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."