Lawsuit Asserts White House Role in Fox News Article on Seth Rich – New York Times
The Washington private detective at the center of a news article about the death of a young Democratic National Committee aide filed suit against 21st Century Fox and Fox News on Tuesday, asserting that the network had pushed the article at the urging of the White House and fabricated quotes from him to support it.
Rod Wheeler, who was hired by the family of the aide, Seth Rich, to look into his death, was quoted in the FoxNews.com article about Mr. Rich’s death that the network later retracted. Mr. Wheeler states that the network was aware that the statements were not made by him but “published the statements with reckless disregard for their truth.”
In the suit, Mr. Wheeler, who was also a Fox News contributor, alleges that he was a pawn in a broader scheme by the White House, a wealthy Trump supporter named Ed Butowsky and Fox News 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.” The lawsuit, alleging defamation and racial discrimination, was filed Tuesday morning in the United States District Court in the Southern District of New York.
Mr. Rich was fatally shot in July 2016. His murder is unsolved. The retracted Fox article, citing law enforcement sources, said Mr. Rich had shared thousands of D.N.C. emails with WikiLeaks — a theory that would undercut the assertions that Russia had interfered in the election on behalf of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Wheeler, who is black, states in the suit that he has faced discrimination at Fox News because of his race. Mr. Wheeler, who is paid a set amount for each appearance he makes on the network, says that he has received less airtime, money and notoriety than his white colleagues.
Representatives for 21st Century Fox and Fox News did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The development comes as Fox News and 21st Century Fox have attempted to move past a sexual harassment scandal that burst into public view last year and led to the ouster of Roger Ailes, the network’s founding chairman; Bill O’Reilly, the prominent anchor; and several other employees. Yet the issue has emerged in other divisions at the company and has cast a shadow over its $15 billion bid for Sky, the European satellite giant.
In June, British authorities ruled that Rupert Murdoch, who is executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, and other company executives were “fit and proper” to hold broadcasting licenses in Britain, even as they concluded that the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News had amounted to “significant corporate failures.”
Douglas Wigdor, a lawyer for Mr. Wheeler, pointed out how Fox News published the Seth Rich article in the same time period that 21st Century Fox executives were meeting with British regulators about the Sky deal.
“At the same time that 21st Century Fox’s general counsel, Gerson Zweifach, was meeting with the U.K. regulators in an attempt to convince them that Fox had in place procedures to ensure compliance with broadcasting standards to purchase Sky, Fox News was working with the Trump administration to disseminate fake news in order to distract the public from Russia’s alleged attempts to influence our country’s presidential election,” said Mr. Wigdor, who also represents several current and former Fox News employees who have made sexual and racial harassment complaints against the network.
In the complaint, Mr. Wheeler states that the author of the retracted Fox News article, Malia Zimmerman, worked closely with Mr. Butowsky, a Trump supporter and occasional Fox News commentator who pushed a fake article to advance the president’s agenda. The suit states that in April, Mr. Butowsky met with Sean Spicer, the president’s first press secretary, about the investigation into the murder of Mr. Rich.
In a statement, Mr. Spicer said: “Ed is longtime supporter of the president’s agenda. He requested a 10-minute meeting to catch up.”
Mr. Wheeler cites a text message and voice mail from Mr. Butowsky as evidence that President Trump had reviewed the article before its publication and supported it. According to the suit, a text message from Mr. Butowsky on May 14 read: “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. But don’t feel the pressure.”
Ms. Zimmerman and Mr. Butowsky could not immediately be reached for comment.
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