MANHATTAN (CN) — In an explosive federal lawsuit, a Fox News contributor accused the network on Tuesday of colluding with President Donald Trump to gin up fake news about the Seth Rich murder investigation to obfuscate real news about the Russia probe.
Retired detective Rod Wheeler, the only named source for a discredited Fox News story insinuating a former Democratic National Committee staffer leaked stolen emails to WikiLeaks, opens his 33-page complaint with a screenshot of a text message he claims to have received from the network’s contributor Ed Butowsky.
“Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article,” the May 14 text message states. “He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”
Before that text message, Wheeler says, Butowsky left him a voicemail.
“A couple minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House, on this,” the message said, according to the lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court. “And, tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we’ve got to do. But you can feel free to say that the White House is onto this now.”
Less than 36 hours later, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman published the article, which also suggested that Hillary Clinton and the U.S. government sought to block the investigation into Rich’s murder.
“Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that,” the now-retracted article quoted Wheeler as saying.
Rich, an employee of the Democratic National Committee, was fatally shot in July 2016, sparking a right-wing conspiracy theory that he was involved in the leak of DNC emails last year.
Fox News president Jay Wallace denied Wheeler’s allegations on Tuesday.
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” he wrote 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.”
Wheeler, who at the time was also a private detective, alleges that the article falsely has him claiming that he discovered “some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks” and that Washington interference stopped him from cracking the case.
Emphasizing the most eye-popping quotations in bold, italicized and underlined text, Wheeler contends that every embarrassing comment in the lawsuit has a paper trail or recording.
“Every quotation in this complaint is from an email, text message, published news article and/or recorded or videotaped conversation,” a footnote reads.
In a segment titled “Behind Fox News’ Baseless Seth Rich Story: The Untold Tale,” National Public Radio exclusively aired an excerpt of the voicemail described in the complaint.
The NPR story described Butowsky as a wealthy Dallas investor, Trump supporter and reliable Republican surrogate.
Wheeler says that Butowsky hired him as a private investigator for the Rich family, who later denounced Fox’s coverage.
One email dated on the eve of publication shows Butowsky depicting himself as the story’s secret puppet-master, hiding his hands to conceal his agenda.
“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,” the email allegedly states. “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 like trump [sic] with the Russians.”
Wheeler says that Butowsky sent him another text message pressing him to push this “narrative in the interviews that you might use.”
Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, Fox News executives feigned neutrality in an effort to convince British regulators to let them acquire Sky media conglomerate.
“Shockingly, it is clear that simultaneous with such baseless claims of nonpartisanship, Fox was contriving with Butowsky and members of the Trump administration to publish and disseminate fake news to affect politics in America,” the complaint states.
Suing Twenty-First Century Fox, Fox News, Zimmerman and Butowsky for defamation, Wheeler claims that “his career will likely never recover” from the damage to his reputation from the article.
On top of these names, the lawsuit also features some high-profile cameos.
Wheeler claims that he and Butowsky handed former White House press secretary Sean Spicer a summary of their investigation the month before publication.
According to the lawsuit, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh — whose watershed reports uncovering the My Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib have been eclipsed recently by anonymously sourced investigations — told Butowsky that his anonymous source received information about an FBI report about the Rich investigation.
“I have somebody on the inside who will go and read a file for me,” Hersh allegedly said. “And I know this person is unbelievably accurate and careful. He’s a very high level guy.”
Hersh cautioned Butowsky that the information might not be true, according to the lawsuit.
Neither Hersh nor Spicer are parties to the complaint.
Wheeler, who is black, joined the ranks of other reporters accusing Fox News of racial discrimination: paying him — unlike white commentators — per on-air appearance without benefits for more than a decade.
Fox News’ president “vehemently” denied this allegation.
“The dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race,” Wallace said.
Wheeler is represented in the case by New York-based attorney Douglas Wigdor, who also represented two black women accusing Fox of “top-down racial harassment” in another lawsuit filed in the Bronx in March.