A private investigator hired to look into the Seth Rich murder filed a lawsuit Tuesday claiming that the network pursued and published an unsubstantiated story in consultation with the White House.
The filing alleges that President Donald Trump himself reviewed drafts of the article before it was published on Fox News.com in May. The network later retracted the story.
NPR’s David Folkenflik first obtained the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in the Southern District of New York, a federal court based in Manhattan.
Though the allegations are dramatic, it is not unusual for plaintiffs to lodge explosive claims in the early stages of litigation. Furthermore, the lawsuit makes a number of other unverified claims that may undermine the credibility of the most serious accusations at hand.
The suit is brought by Rod Wheeler, a former police detective and Fox News contributor who left the network given his involvement with the story. The article in question was written by Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman. Citing Wheeler’s own investigative work and a single anonymous FBI source, Zimmerman’s story claimed that the release of former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails was not the work of Russian hackers, but internal DNC sources — quite possibly the 27-year-old Rich, who was killed under mysterious circumstances in July 2016.
Wheeler alleges that he and another Fox News contributor named Ed Butowsky met with former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in April in advance of the article’s publication to brief him on Zimmerman’s work. Spicer confirmed that the meeting took place in a statement to NPR. His statement contradicts his comments on the article during a briefing with reporters on May 16, in which he claimed he was unaware of the story.
One month later, just a day and a half before Zimmerman’s story was published, Wheeler claims Butowsky left him a voicemail claiming that the Trump administration was intensely interested in the story. “We have the full attention of the White House on this,” he said. “And tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we’ve got to do.”
Butowsky allegedly followed up with a text. “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article,” he wrote. “He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you.”
Spicer denied that the president was involved with the story in any capacity.
Now, Wheeler claims that Zimmerman fabricated quotes and attributed them to him under pressure from the White House. He is also suing the network for racial discrimination, claiming he was disadvantaged in the promotion process as a black man.
He further alleges that he and his Fox News colleagues pursued the story in order to relieve pressure on Trump, occasioned by the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Zimmerman’s Rich story was published just one week after Trump abruptly dismissed former FBI director James Comey.
Fox News President Jay Wallace emphatically denied the allegations, and added they had no evidence Wheeler was misquoted.
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” he said in a statement. “The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman.”
The story was later retracted and widely panned as inaccurate. The FBI claims it is not involved in the Rich investigation, while Washington police say it appears he was the victim of a botched robbery.
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