Malia Zimmerman, a Fox News reporter, was accused of fabricating two quotes for a story that connected now-deceased DNC staffer Seth Rich to Wikileaks in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Washington police detective Rod Wheeler, the private investigator hired by Rich's family and himself a longtime Fox News commentator. The lawsuit, which accused Zimmerman and Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky, of inventing a story to "shift the blame" away from Russia's hacking of the 2016 election, also claims that President Trump collaborated with Fox News and was allowed to review a draft of the story before it was published.
The plaintiff claims that the motive behind the report was "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." Wheeler also said that the fabricated quotes attributed to him were meant to back up the network’s false thesis, and amount to defamation.
Wheeler says he was forced to retract the fabricated statements after Zimmerman's (since retracted) article was published:
"Mr. Wheeler — who was the only named source quoted in the article — did not make these statements," states the complaint. "According to Butowsky, the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article. Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda. Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover."
According to Wheeler's lawsuit, Butowsky reportedly approached the private investigator in February and offered to finance an investigation into Rich’s murder for Zimmerman’s story, but it was all just an elaborate setup.
"Butowsky and Zimmerman were not simply Good Samaritans attempting to solve a murder," Wheeler said in the suit. They "hoped that, if they could confirm that Seth Rich leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks, that would debunk reports the Russians were responsible for the DNC hacks."
The allegedly faked quotes used in the story, attributed to Wheeler, include, “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks." Wheeler was also falsely quoted saying the Democratic National Committee or Clinton’s team were blocking the murder investigation, according to Bloomberg.
The first paragraph of the lawsuit includes a screen shot of a May 14 text message, which Wheeler claims was sent by Butowsky, which indicates the president had reviewed the article before it was published:
"Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article," the text message reads. "He wants the article out immediately. It's now all up to you. But don't feel the pressure."
In an interview with NPR, which broke the story, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged that Butowsky and Wheeler briefed him on the Seth Rich story a month before it was published.
In addition to Spicer, Butowsky allegedly also kept Steve Bannon apprised of the work on the Rich murder story, as well as the Justice Department’s director of public affairs, Sarah Flores. She denied the allegation. “I have not communicated with Mr. Butowsky at any point this year," Flores said in an email to Bloomberg.
The lawsuit cites several statements from Butowsky, a financial adviser who has appeared on Fox News, that the story was politically motivated. As Poynter notes, after Butowsky was told by journalist Seymour Hersh that there was an FBI report establishing that Seth Rich sent emails to Wikileaks, he allegedly said, "The most important thing is this. Everyone, there's so many people throughout Trump's four years and maybe eight years are always going to fall back on the idea that he is not legitimate and the Russians got him elected. This [information about Seth Rich providing emails to Wikileaks] changes all of that. He also said, according to the lawsuit, that the story "solve[s] the problem about Russians are the ones that gave the emails because that did not happen. I know that did not happen."
After the article with the fabricated quotes was published, the lawsuit states that Wheeler met with executives at Fox News and "explained to Ms. Brandi and Mr. Wallace that he had not provided Zimmerman with the quotations she used in her article." Despite this, according to the lawsuit, "Fox has not issued any statement admitting that the quotes attributed to Mr. Wheeler were not made by him."
“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,” Douglas Wigdor, a lawyer for Wheeler, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
Wheeler, who is black, also claims Fox discriminated against him based on his race by giving him less air time than white colleagues who are more frequently hired into full-time positions.
In a statement, Fox News president Jay Wallace pushed back against allegations it published the story to advance the Trump administration's agenda and acknowledged the retraction of the story is still being investigated:
The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. 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.
Wheeler is represented by Wigdor LLP, the firm that has previously brought numerous complaints of discrimination against Fox News on behalf of former employees.
The full lawsuit is below (link from Mediaite).