(CN) – A Dallas investor accused of helping to advance conspiracy theories about the death of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich is asking for $57 million in damages in a defamation lawsuit against NPR and one of its reporters.
Ed Butowksy, a frequent Fox News guest who hired a private investigator to look into the murder of Seth Rich, filed a complaint Thursday in Sherman, Texas, federal court against National Public Radio reporter David Folkenflik for publishing allegedly defamatory statements about him.
Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and former homicide detective who was also a Fox News contributor, was quoted in a now-retracted Fox News story alleging that Rich’s death was somehow connected to the leak of DNC emails to WikiLeaks.
Police in Washington, D.C., where Rich was shot to death in July 2016, have maintained that the murder was a robbery gone wrong.
Wheeler accused Fox News of making up his quotes, in collusion with President Donald Trump, in an attempt to deflect attention from news about the Russia probe. Wheeler sued the network – and Butowsky – in August 2017.
Butowsky, represented in Thursday’s lawsuit by Brooklyn attorney Ty Clevenger, takes issue with several of Folkenflik’s NPR stories that discuss his involvement in the Fox News story, including one headlined “The Man Behind the Scenes in Fox News’ Discredited Seth Rich Story.”
This report quotes Wheeler’s lawsuit, which claimed that Butowsky used the investigator “as a pawn” and worked behind the scenes to help Fox News put the Rich story together.
Butowsky now claims that Folkenflik pushed a “false narrative” that Fox’s story was “baseless.” The suit also alleges the NPR reporter conspired with Wheeler’s attorney David Wigdor in an effort to extort money from Fox.
Butowsky claims Folkenflik failed to verify the information in Wheeler’s lawsuit before publishing his story about it.
“This is a case about an unethical and reckless journalist, who was spoon-fed a false narrative about President Trump and Fox News with instructions to leak the fake story online and in social media in the early morning hours of August 1, 2017,” the complaint states.
Butowsky also says in his lawsuit that Folkenflik “had no evidence of any connection between Butowsky and the president because there was no connection.”
Butowsky alleges that in a 10 to 15-minute meeting he had with Wheeler and then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer before the publication of the Fox News story, “most of the time was spent talking about shirts.”
“Butowsky and Spicer bought their shirts from the same source: Jacomo Hakim’s Booktailer,” the lawsuit states. “At the meeting, Butowsky and Wheeler … told Spicer that they were working on a story about Seth Rich and wanted Spicer to be aware of it – that was it.”
“The president of the United States was not at the meeting and Spicer did not inform the president about the meeting,” the filing continues.
Butowsky claims Folkenflik’s reporting caused him “enormous loss of business” and “substantial personal injury, fear, and mental and physical pain and suffering.” He seeks $57 million plus punitive damages for claims of defamation, business disparagement, conspiracy and infliction of emotional distress.
Folkenflik defended his work in a statement given to Courthouse News on Friday.
“I’m proud of the journalism that we do at NPR and of my coverage, generally, and on this story,” Folkenflik said. “I stand by my reporting.”
An NPR spokesperson said the network supports Folkenflik.
“NPR stands behind David Folkenflik’s reporting,” Media Relations Director Isabel Lara said. “Millions of Americans trust NPR to provide accurate information about the world and their communities every day; we take this responsibility very seriously.”
In an interview with Courthouse News on Friday, Butowsky said that he was shocked when Folkenflik told him about Wheeler’s lawsuit, which alleged that he had been asked by the president to divert attention from alleged collusion with the Russian government. Folkenflik asked Butowsky to comment on his relationship with the president, and with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I said, ‘you’re kidding me,’” Butowsky said. “There’s no truth to that. I’ve never met the president, never met Vladimir Putin. Nobody reached out to me.”
“[Folkenflik] had an agenda and he was going with it,” Bukowsky said. “He basically tossed away any journalism rules that are supposed to be followed. In article after article and radio appearances, he went after me and defamed me. And that’s what my case is about.”
He said that he still believes the retracted Fox News story was accurate.
“That story that Malia Zimmerman wrote, from what I know, is 100 percent correct,” Butowsky said. “People should go back, read it, realize that there hasn’t been one development that shows that story not to be correct.”
Butowsky said that he has 20 more suits he plans to file against other media outlets and some individuals.
Butowsky has been named as the defendant in several lawsuits relating to the Rich story, in addition to Wheeler’s suit.
In March, Rich’s parents sued Fox and Butowsky for allegedly cooking up the conspiracy theory about the cause of their son’s death to further their own political agendas.
Rich’s brother Aaron also named Butowsky as a defendant in a separate defamation suit.
Aaron Rich claims that Butowsky, along with America First Media and the Washington Examiner, defamed him by claiming that he was involved in his brother’s death. Aaron Rich’s lawsuit says the defendants falsely claimed to have proof that he “engaged in deceit and obstruction to cover his tracks after Seth was murdered.”
In May, Butowsky was sued again for defamation by Brad Bauman, former spokesman for the Rich family.
One of Butowsky’s attorneys, Steven Biss, said in a statement that Folkenflik and Wheeler’s attorney, Wigdor, are friends.
“Folkenflik allowed himself to be used as a firecracker to ignite the false narrative and poison the media, most of whom simply repeated the fake news like lemmings,” Biss said. “Folkenflik and Wigdor’s actions exemplify the universally condemned practice of using the press as a weapon. What they did to Ed Butowsky was grossly improper.”