Con­spir­acy the­o­ries meet le­gal­i­ties

Slain DNC staffer’s fam­ily hits in­ves­ti­ga­tor with cease-and-de­sist no­tice

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY PERRY STEIN

The fam­ily of slain Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee staffer Seth Rich is threat­en­ing le­gal ac­tion against a man it says has ped­dled politi­cized con­spir­acy the­o­ries about the slay­ing of the 27-yearold, who was shot as he was walk­ing home in the District late one night last July.

A lawyer for the Rich fam­ily sent a cease-and-de­sist let­ter Thurs­day to Rod Wheeler — a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor and Fox News con­trib­u­tor who had been work­ing on be­half of the fam­ily.

Cit­ing Wheeler — who was, in turn, cit­ing an anony­mous fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tor — Fox News and its lo­cal Wash­ing­ton af­fil­i­ate re­ported last week that Rich had leaked DNC emails to Wik­iLeaks be­fore he was fa­tally shot near his home last July. The un­der­ly­ing sug­ges­tion of this claim, which has long been a pop­u­lar right-wing the­ory, is that Rich could have been killed for leak­ing that in­for­ma­tion.

Twelve days af­ter Rich’s death, Wik­iLeaks pub­lished 20,000 emails that em­bar­rassed former sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Clin­ton and the DNC, and forced the ouster of its chair­woman.

D.C. po­lice have re­peat­edly said that they think Rich’s killing was the re­sult of a botched rob­bery. No ar­rests have been made in the case.

The Fox re­ports, which gained trac­tion on so­cial me­dia, said that an FBI foren­sics ex­am­i­na­tion showed that Rich trans­ferred 44,053 DNC emails and 17,761 at­tach­ments to a now-de­ceased Wik­iLeaks di­rec­tor.

The fam­ily has re­jected this story and de­manded a re­trac­tion from Fox. Wheeler has since re­canted parts of the story, say­ing he

was mis­quoted and had no di­rect knowl­edge of the iden­tity of the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tor or the in­ves­ti­ga­tor’s find­ings.

In the let­ter ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post, a lawyer for the Rich fam­ily warned Wheeler to im­me­di­ately “cease and de­sist” from mak­ing any state­ments about Rich, the homi­cide and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“Your im­proper and unau­tho­rized state­ments, many of which are false and have no ba­sis in fact, have also in­jured the mem­ory and rep­u­ta­tion of Seth Rich and have de­famed and in­jured the rep­u­ta­tion of the mem­bers of the fam­ily,’ ” lawyer Joseph In­grisano wrote.

Ed Bu­towsky, a Dal­las fi­nancier who reg­u­larly ap­pears on Fox’s busi­ness chan­nels and on other net­works, had been pay­ing Wheeler to in­ves­ti­gate the case for the fam­ily. A spokesman for the Rich fam­ily said that Wheeler had of­fered his ser­vices to the fam­ily, “claim­ing he wanted to help.”

The let­ter sent by In­grisano also al­leges that Wheeler vi­o­lated his con­tract with the fam­ily by speak­ing out about the case with­out its ap­proval.

Reached by phone Satur­day, Wheeler said he could not com­ment on the con­tent of the let­ter but said he hopes the mur­der case is solved.

“Cur­rently, I am ex­plor­ing all of my le­gal op­tions, and I sin­cerely hope that one day we find the per­son who took Seth’s life,” Wheeler said.

As the the­o­ries around the slay­ing have played out in con­ser­va­tive me­dia, the Rich fam­ily has con­tin­ued to try to knock them down.

“Any­one who con­tin­ues to push this fake news story af­ter it was so thor­oughly de­bunked is prov­ing to the world they have a trans­par­ent po­lit­i­cal agenda or are a so­ciopath,” fam­ily spokesman Brad Bau­man said in a state­ment. “In ei­ther case, they should be taken off the air be­cause they are ei­ther blind to the dam­age they are do­ing to a mur­der vic­tim’s fam­ily or don’t care, show­ing a pro­found lack of judge­ment and com­mon de­cency.”

The Rich story has taken on el­e­ments of the Comet Ping Pong con­spir­acy the­ory, a false and pre­pos­ter­ous tale in­volv­ing Clin­ton and her sup­posed op­er­a­tion of a child-abuse ring at the District pizza restau­rant.

Fox News per­son­al­ity Sean Han­nity tweeted and ran seg­ments

“Any­one who con­tin­ues to push this fake news story af­ter it was so thor­oughly de­bunked is prov­ing to the world they have a trans­par­ent po­lit­i­cal agenda or are a so­ciopath.” Brad Bau­man, spokesman for the Rich fam­ily

about the slay­ing and Wheeler’s claims, fur­ther fu­el­ing the con­spir­acy the­o­ries. On Fri­day, the Rus­sian Em­bassy in Bri­tain tweeted that “Wik­ileaks in­former Seth Rich mur­dered in US but [Bri­tish main­stream me­dia] was so busy ac­cus­ing Rus­sian hack­ers to take no­tice.”

Friends and fam­ily said that they re­mem­ber Rich as a kind and funny per­son who of­ten dressed up in cos­tumes to make peo­ple laugh. They say he cared about his work and wanted to en­sure that ev­ery­one had the op­por­tu­nity to vote in elec­tions.

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