A private investigator who was put at the center of a controversial report on the death of a murdered Democratic National Committee operative is alleging he was placed there against his will by employees of Fox News Channel.
Rod Wheeler isn’t the world’s most famous gumshoe, but his name became associated earlier this year with a now-retracted online report from Fox News Channel that used comments from Wheeler alleging Seth Rich, a DNC employee who was killed in Washington, D.C. last July, was linked to a leak of DNC emails by Wikileaks. Wheeler, who had made an appearance on Fox affiilate WTTG about the situation, subsequently told CNN he had no evidence to support the claims. Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had been discussing the Seth Rich theories on his primetime Fox News program, said in May that he would “cease” talking about the case out of respect for the victim’s family, though he would continue to investigate the matter.
Now, a complaint filed Tuesday by Wheeler in United States District Court in the Southern District of New York threatens to spark new conversation.
In the complaint, Wheeler alleges “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,” according to his attorney, Douglas Wigdor. Wigdor serves as attorney in several current cases alleging harassment or discrimination by Fox News Channel executives.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that the White House had influence over the story. “The President had no knowledge of the story,” she said at a Tuesday briefing.
The lawsuit alleges Ed Butowsky and Malia Zimmerman, a Fox News contributor and journalist, respectively, “fabricated two quotations and attributed them to Mr. Wheeler,” and included them in the now retracted article.
“Mr. Wheeler — who was the only named source quoted in the article — did not make these statements,” the lawsuit alleges. Instead, the suit says, “Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda.” Wheeler “was subsequently forced to correct the false record, and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public.”
The original Fox News posting on the matter lent momentum to right-wing outlets including Breitbart and The Drudge Report, which had suggested with items and links, but little credible evidence, that Rich could have been killed for the leak of DNC emails during last year’s presidential campaign, an act that has largely been attributed to Russian interference.
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” said Jay Wallace, president of news at Fox News Channel, 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. Additionally, Fox News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.”
In the complaint, Wheeler seeks damages to be determined at trial to compensate him for mental anguish and emotional distress, and loss of earnings from his job.
The DNC on Tuesday condemned anyone who might plant fake news items of the sort alleged in the complaint. “If these allegations are true, it is beyond vile that the White House – and possibly even Trump himself – would use the murder of a young man to distract the public’s attention from their chaotic administration and Trump’s ties to Russia. The Rich family has begged those responsible for these conspiracies to stop. And yet, Trump’s allies have ignored their pain and their pleas, degrading the office of the president by spreading repulsive lies,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, DNC Communications Director, in a statement. “This should outrage any decent human being. There is no excuse for the suffering that Trump’s associates and their conspirators at FOX have caused the Rich family and those closest to him. Both parties should denounce these sick and twisted tactics.”