Hoax or Payback? The Seth Rich Story Has Resulted in a Lawsuit

A security guard looks out of the the News Corp. headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Bill O'Reilly has lost his job at Fox News Channel following reports that five women had been paid millions of dollars to keep quiet about harassment allegations. 21st Century Fox issued a statement Wednesday that "after a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O'Reilly have agreed that Bill O'Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Out of the Seth Rich hoax, there is now a lawsuit.

You had to know it was coming, as the hoax that was perpetuated by Trump loyalists and Fox News’ Sean Hannity with such fervor, even after the parents of the young DNC staffer had asked them to stop.

To briefly recap: Seth Rich is the DNC staffer murdered in Washington, D.C. a year ago. Law enforcement call it a robbery gone wrong, but the social media rumor that caught fire, fanned by WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, Hannity, and in assorted internet cesspools was that Rich was the source of the DNC leaks preceding the 2016 election.

The lawsuit, discussed in an article from NPR today, was not, however, brought from Rich’s grieving parents.

Rod Wheeler, a paid commentator for Fox News, is alleging that a wealthy Trump supporter and Fox News worked in unison to craft the Seth Rich-as-DNC-leak-turned-murder-victim, in order to distract from the growing Russia investigation.

Wheeler alleges Fox News and the Trump supporter intended to deflect public attention from growing concern about the administration’s ties to the Russian government. His suit charges that a Fox News reporter created quotations out of thin air and attributed them to him to propel her story.

Fox’s president of news, Jay Wallace, told NPR Monday there was no “concrete evidence” that Wheeler was misquoted by the reporter, Malia Zimmerman. The news executive did not address a question about the story’s allegedly partisan origins. Fox News declined to allow Zimmerman to comment for this story.

No concrete evidence.

If you’ll remember, the story at Fox began in May, with Sean Hannity going at it like a dog with a bone. He was relentless.

While the network quickly retracted the story, saying it did not meet their journalistic standards, Hannity planted his feet, stubbornly refusing to back down and saying he retracted nothing.

Because he has no journalistic standards.

Ed Butowsky is a wealthy Dallas investor and Trump supporter at the center of the lawsuit.

Butowsky offered to pay Wheeler to investigate the death of Rich.

On April 20, a month before the story ran, Butowsky and Wheeler — the investor and the investigator — met at the White House with then Press Secretary Sean Spicer to brief him on what they were uncovering.

The first page of the lawsuit quotes a voicemail and text from Butowsky boasting that President Trump himself had reviewed drafts of the Fox News story just before it went to air and was published.

Butowsky went on later to say that he hadn’t actually spoke with the president and his claims otherwise were a joke.

Sean Spicer, however, has confirmed that there was a meeting.

“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,” said Douglas Wigdor, Wheeler’s lawyer.

Wheeler has appeared with Lou Dobbs, as well as on Hannity’s program to discuss the Rich case.

The NPR piece gives a verbatim account of events leading up to when the story first appeared on Fox.

On May 14, about 36 hours before Fox News’ story appeared, Butowsky left a voicemail for Wheeler, saying, “We have the full, uh, attention of the White House on this. And tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we’ve got to do.”

Butowsky also texted 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.”

Again, Butowsky has since said that part was “just kidding,” and Spicer is unaware of any contact between Butowsky and Trump.

“Ed’s been a longtime supporter of the president and asked to meet to catch up,” Spicer told NPR Monday night. “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’.”

Spicer said Butowsky laid out what they had found about the case. “It had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda — and there was no agenda,” Spicer says now. “They were just informing me of the [Fox] story.”

And while Butowsky is now saying Wheeler wanted his help in getting a job in the White House, Wheeler is insisting in his lawsuit that he was pressured with White House references by Butowsky to push the story.

Wheeler played his own role in furthering the story. But he contends he regretted it the same day it aired. His suit alleges Fox News defamed him by manufacturing two false quotations and attributing them to him and ruining his reputation by blaming him as the deceptive story fell apart. Wheeler, an African American, is also suing the network for racial discrimination, saying he failed to advance as prominently as white counterparts. Fox News had no comment on that allegation.

Wheeler has been a contributor for Fox News for 11 years and was hoping for advancement and exposure with the network that had yet to happen.

It was Butowsky that introduced Wheeler to Malia Zimmerman, a Fox News producer, who Wheeler claims attributed comments to him that he says he never made.

Butowsky also paid Wheeler $5,000 to begin the investigation, and introduced him to Rich’s parents, telling him to play down the Fox News angle.

And Butowsky lays out a different mission than aiding the Rich family. Butowsky says he became convinced the FBI had a report concluding that Seth Rich’s laptop showed he had had contacts with WikiLeaks after speaking to the legendary reporter Seymour Hersh, who was also investigating Rich’s death. According to the transcripts in the lawsuit, Butowsky said Hersh had an FBI source who confirmed the report.

In an interview this week, Hersh sounded unconvinced.

“I hear gossip,” Hersh told NPR on Monday. “[Butowsky] took two and two and made forty-five out of it.”

Indeed, Wheeler made no progress in reaching the conclusion that Butowsky had already made in his own mind.

The next part of the story should be enough to cause a few double takes, however.

On May 10, Butowsky and Fox’s Malia Zimmerman call Wheeler to say they have an FBI source confirming emails were sent from Seth Rich to WikiLeaks, though they do not share the source’s identity, according to the investigator’s suit. Wheeler will later say this is the only federal law enforcement source that Fox News — or he — has related to this story.

Wheeler says he doesn’t know whether that source emerged from Butowsky’s conversation with Seymour Hersh, or whether it was a fabrication.

The next day, Zimmerman sends Wheeler a draft of her story, which is to run initially on the network’s website. It includes no quotes from Wheeler.

On the evening of May 14, Butowsky leaves a voicemail for Wheeler raising the stakes by invoking the White House and saying “let’s close this deal.”

A bit later that night, at 9:10 p.m., Butowsky texts Wheeler, according to Wheeler’s suit: “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s not all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”

A claim he now says is false, so how does that not add pressure on Wheeler, if true?

Butowsky sends an email to Fox News producers and hosts coaching them on how to frame the Rich story, according to the lawsuit. Recipients included Fox & Friendshosts, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade, among others.

“I’m actually the one who’s been putting this together but as you know, I keep my name out of things because I have no credibility,” Butowsky wrote, as reflected in the Wheeler suit. “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion” between “Trump and the Russians.”

Wow.

The night before the story ran and the day of the story itself, Butowsky coached Wheeler on what to say on the air: “[T]he narrative in the interviews you might use is that you and [Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman’s] work prove that the Russians didn’t hack into the DNC and steal the emails and impact our elections.” In another text; “If you can, try to highlight this puts the Russian hacking story to rest.”

And as we know, Wheeler did push the idea that there could be answers to Rich’s murder on his laptop, and that law enforcement had not been forthcoming in helping with his investigation.

It’s a twisted story that has only become more twisted, along the way.

So now the question is: Who is more credible?

I’ve no doubt the Rich hoax is just that – a hoax, but now Wheeler has opened a fresh channel to question if what perpetuated this hoax was an effort by a news organization to draw fire away from the administration, or a spurned contributor, looking for payback.