Fox faulted on Wik­iLeaks story

Los Angeles Times - - COMPANY TOWN - Staff writer Alexa D’An­gelo con­trib­uted to this re­port.

A law­suit filed Tues­day lays out a tale of Trump al­lies, the White House and Fox News Chan­nel con­spir­ing to push a false story about Demo­cratic leaks and an un­solved killing in or­der to dis­tract at­ten­tion from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has been swirling around the pres­i­dent.

The defama­tion suit was filed against Fox by an in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Rod Wheeler, who had been look­ing into the killing of Seth Rich, a for­mer Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee staff mem­ber killed in 2016 in what po­lice say was a botched rob­bery. Wheeler al­leges that Fox quoted him as say­ing things he never said and was will­ing to show Pres­i­dent Trump its ar­ti­cle be­fore pub­li­ca­tion.

Rich’s death has be­come fod­der for con­spir­acy the­o­rists, an­ger­ing the 27-yearold’s fam­ily. In May, the story was thrust into the head­lines again when Fox pub­lished an ar­ti­cle on its web­site in which Wheeler re­port­edly said there had been con­tact be­tween Rich and Wik­iLeaks, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that posted a trove of DNC emails last year. The story was heav­ily pro­moted by Fox News host Sean Han­nity, who has in­for­mally ad­vised the pres­i­dent.

In the law­suit, Wheeler says he never made that state­ment. He also con­tends he was told the com­ments at­trib­uted to him were put in the story be­cause Trump wanted it that way.

Fox says it’s “com­pletely er­ro­neous” to sug­gest it pushed the story to dis­tract from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Wheeler has made con­tra­dic­tory state­ments about the case. He is also al­leg­ing racial dis­crim­i­na­tion by the net­work, and he is rep­re­sented by a lawyer who has other law­suits against Fox.

White House Press Sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said that Trump had no knowl­edge of the false story be­fore it was posted and that it was “com­pletely un­true” that the White House had any role in shap­ing it.

Wheeler, a Fox con­trib­u­tor on law en­force­ment is­sues, said he was brought into the Rich case by donor and Trump sup­porter Ed Bu­towsky. He says Bu­towsky, who has also made oc­ca­sional guest ap­pear­ances on Fox News, was in­tent on es­tab­lish­ing a link be­tween Rich and Wik­iLeaks.

Two days be­fore the Fox ar­ti­cle was pub­lished, Wheeler said, he got a text mes­sage from Bu­towsky: “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.”

Bu­towsky said in a phone in­ter­view Tues­day he has never met Trump and his text to Wheeler about the pres­i­dent read­ing the ar­ti­cle was “tongue-in-cheek.”

Fox re­moved the story from its web­site a week af­ter it was pub­lished, say­ing that “it was not ini­tially sub­jected to the high de­gree of ed­i­to­rial scru­tiny we re­quire for all of our re­port­ing.”

Be­fore the ar­ti­cle was pub­lished, Wheeler’s law­suit says, Bu­towsky and Wheeler met with White House Press Sec­re­tary Sean Spicer and gave Spicer a copy of Wheeler’s notes on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Spicer asked to be kept in­formed, it says.

Spicer played down the im­por­tance of that meet­ing.

“Ed is a long­time sup­porter of the pres­i­dent’s agenda who of­ten ap­pears in the me­dia,” Spicer said Tues­day. “He asked for a 10minute meet­ing, with no spec­i­fied topic, to catch up and said he would be bring­ing along a con­trib­u­tor to Fox News.… The White House had noth­ing to do with his story.”

The suit also al­leges that in the weeks and months be­fore the ar­ti­cle was pub­lished, Bu­towsky had con­tact with Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing Spicer and Steve Ban­non, Trump’s chief strate­gist — “re­gard­ing his ef­forts re­lat­ing to Seth Rich.”

Af­ter pub­li­ca­tion, Wheeler called Bu­towsky ask­ing for an ex­pla­na­tion for the false state­ments, the law­suit says. “Bu­towsky stated that the quotes were in­cluded be­cause that is the way the Pres­i­dent wanted the ar­ti­cle, re­fer­ring to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump,” the suit says.

Wheeler al­leges that at sev­eral points be­fore the ar­ti­cle was pub­lished, Bu­towsky sent text mes­sages to Wheeler to try to per­suade him to say the Rus­sians did not hack into the DNC.

“Bu­towsky sent a text mes­sage to Mr.Wheeler that reads, in part, ‘[t]he nar­ra­tive in the in­ter­views you might use is that your and Malia’s work prove that the Rus­sians didn’t hack into the DNC and steal the emails and im­pact our elec­tion,’” the law­suit says. Malia Zim­mer­man was a Fox pro­ducer on the story.Jay Wal­lace, Fox News pres­i­dent, said Tues­day: “The ac­cu­sa­tion that 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,” Wal­lace said.

In May, Wheeler told Fox’s lo­cal af­fil­i­ate in Wash­ing­ton that he “ab­so­lutely” had sources at the FBI say­ing that there was in­for­ma­tion that could link Rich to Wik­iLeaks. But the sta­tion noted that Wheeler sub­se­quently said con­tra­dic­tory things to other news or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Wheeler is rep­re­sented by Dou­glas Wig­dor, an at­tor­ney who is also rep­re­sent­ing Fox News em­ploy­ees in a sep­a­rate suit al­leg­ing racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

Richard Drew As­so­ci­ated Press

A LAW­SUIT ac­cuses Fox News and Trump al­lies of col­lab­o­rat­ing on a false re­port about Demo­cratic leaks to dis­tract at­ten­tion from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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