The conspiracy theory that murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was the source of the DNC email archive released by WikiLeaks and was killed for his involvement is back in the news. Rod Wheeler, the private investigator who was paid by a Trump supporter to look into the death, is now suing Fox News.
NPR’s David Folkenflik broke the story early Tuesday morning, just after the federal lawsuit was filed. Wheeler, who had been a paid Fox News contributor, is alleging that he was defamed when reporter Malia Zimmerman used quotes credited to him. He claims that the quotes were entirely fabricated.
The quotes Wheeler alleges he never actually said are:
- “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.”
- “My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee, or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward. That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.”
He claims he was used as a pawn in a plan to distract from the Russian election meddling investigation with the publication of the story, which Fox News retracted a week after publication.
Fox’s President of News, Jay Wallace, told NPR that there isn’t any “concrete evidence” that Zimmerman misquoted Wheeler, suggesting that their interviews were not recorded. Wallace declined to allow Zimmerman permission to speak to Folkenflik and didn’t provide comment about the role of Ed Butowsky, who paid Wheeler, in the story.
Wallace later issued this statement:
A Fox News executive speaking to NPR on condition of anonymity added that “the story was published to the website without review by or permission from senior management.”
The 33-page complaint, which names Fox News, parent company 21st Century Fox, Zimmerman, and Butowsky, includes a screenshot of this text message from Butowsky to Wheeler:
Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you.
Butowsky told NPR that he was just joking, but Sean Spicer, then the White House Press Secretary, did confirm he was briefed on the story a month before it was published.
“Ed’s been a longtime supporter of the president and asked to meet to catch up,” Spicer told NPR. “I didn’t know who Rod Wheeler was. Once we got into my office, [Butowsky] said, ‘I’m sure you recognize Rod Wheeler from Fox News.’”
According to Spicer, Butowsky then explained what was going on and where Wheeler was in investigating Rich’s death.
“It had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda — and there was no agenda,” Spicer told NPR. “They were just informing me of the [Fox] story.”