Ex-Cop Offers Claim of Trump Collusion, This Time With FoxBy , , and
Lawsuit says Trump previewed story shifting blame on DNC hack
Fox retracted article but says detective’s claims are bogus
On May 10, a wealthy Republican donor and a Fox News reporter allegedly called a private investigator to discuss a potentially explosive story about an unsolved murder.
It was the day after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and Washington was in turmoil about the impact on a probe into ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.
The donor and the reporter had a plan, one that could potentially change the narrative on the Russia inquiry, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the private investigator, Rod Wheeler, an ex-homicide detective and occasional Fox News contributor.
According to Wheeler, the Republican donor, Dallas financier Ed Butowsky, and the Fox journalist, Malia Zimmerman, were preparing a story alleging that the murder victim, 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, had been communicating with WikiLeaks, suggesting that Rich rather than the Russians leaked stolen DNC emails.
In their chat that day, they told Wheeler that an unnamed FBI source confirmed that Rich had exchanged emails with WikiLeaks, crucial corroboration for their story, according to the lawsuit. The alleged motive was "to shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Presidential election," Wheeler said in the complaint.
Wheeler also claimed that Butowsky kept White House officials appraised of their progress on the story and showed it to Trump before it was published. “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article,” Butowsky said in a May 14 text message to Wheeler, according to the lawsuit. “He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you, but don’t feel the pressure."
The story was published May 16, inflaming conspiracy theorists and Hillary Clinton foes. It also inflamed Wheeler, who claims the shocking conclusion in the story hinged on quotes about Rich and WikiLeaks that were attributed to him, but which he never said. Wheeler said that when he confronted Fox about his concerns, he was told by Butowsky that "the quotes were included because that is the way the President wanted the article," according to the suit.
Fox News retracted the story a week later, saying it didn’t live up to its reporting standards.
According to the complaint, there are audio recordings backing up many of the claims, as well as text messages and emails.
Wheeler, who is black, claims he was defamed by Fox News because of the bogus quotes and that he was discriminated against based on his color, getting less air time and pay than his white colleagues.
The White House denied the allegations.
“The president didn’t have knowledge of this story,” his spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Tuesday in a news conference. “The White House didn’t have any involvement in this story. Beyond that, it’s ongoing litigation that doesn’t involve any parties in this building.”
Fox News said there was no evidence that Wheeler was misquoted and denied discriminating against him. Fox News President Jay Wallace called the allegations "completely erroneous."
Butowsky, a frequent guest on Fox Business News, also denied the allegations, saying in a phone call that he never claimed to have an FBI source and Wheeler was fabricating elements of what transpired. Wheeler "took bits and pieces of things that happened" and used them out of context, said Butowsky, the managing partner at Chapwood Capital Investment Management LLC in Addison, Texas.
He added that Wheeler was aware of the quotes Zimmerman attributed to him before the story was published. The texts Butowsky sent to Wheeler about the president reading the story and wanting it published quickly were merely him "teasing" the private investigator because he was eager to curry favor with Trump and get a job in his administration, he said.
News of the DNC hack broke in June 2016, and WikiLeaks published the stolen emails July 22. U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia hacked the emails and gave them to WikiLeaks. But Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, suggested an alternative theory.
Rich, a low-level staffer at the DNC, had been murdered in July 2016 as he walked home from a Washington bar, with police saying it was most likely a botched robbery. Assange hinted that Rich’s murder was linked to that hack and that the DNC may have had him killed.
It was a conspiracy theory that quickly fizzled, until Fox News revived it early in 2017 as the Russia probe was heating up.
Butowsky allegedly approached Wheeler in February and offered to finance an investigation into Rich’s murder. According to the complaint, it was all just a setup.
"Butowsky and Zimmerman were not simply Good Samaritans attempting to solve a murder," Wheeler said in the suit. They "hoped that, if they could confirm that Seth Rich leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks, that would debunk reports the Russians were responsible for the DNC hacks."
On May 15, Butowsky emailed Fox producers and on-air talent to prepare them for the story, telling them the goal was to dispel the idea that Russia had hacked emails "and there was no collusion like Trump with the Russians,” according to the lawsuit.
The story ran the next day.
Wheeler’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, represents two dozen current and former employees in discrimination and sexual harassment suits against the network. He has put pressure on the company by urging U.K. media regulators to reject Fox’s corporate parent, 21st Century Fox Inc., to acquire broadcaster Sky Plc.
Zimmerman allegedly admitted to Wheeler that she faked his quotes, according to the lawsuit. She told him it would pay off for him in the long run, Wheeler said.
“One day you’re going to win an award for having said those things you didn’t say," she allegedly told him.
The case is Wheeler v. 21st Century Fox Inc., 1:17-cv-05807, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).