"The story is ridiculous, it's all made up crap," the Dallas financier told the Observer on Tuesday morning before begging off the phone. He'd love to tell us the full story, he said, but he just didn't have the time to talk. He might, he said, in two hours. He didn't, so we left a message with Butowsky's receptionist, who has to be one of the most popular people in Dallas today.
Butowsky is at the center of federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in New York that accuses Butowsky, Fox News and the White House of concocting a fake story connecting murdered Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich to the 2016 leak of Democratic National Committee emails. Fox News retracted the May 16 story a few days after it ran.
The retracted story quoted only one named source, Washington private investigator Ron Wheeler. Wheeler sued Fox, Fox News, Butowsky and the reporter who wrote the story, Malia Zimmerman, saying his quotes in the story were fabricated in order to create a narrative that would distract the public from the investigation of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.
According to the suit, "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."
Butowsky hired Wheeler to look into Rich's murder in February 2017, telling the private investigator that he was working with Zimmerman, who was conducting an investigation into Rich's death. Wheeler alleges that Butowsky and Zimmerman were not, as they initially presented themselves, simply "Good Samaritans attempting to solve a murder." Instead, he said, "it was their aim to have Mr. Wheeler confirm that: (i) Seth Rich was responsible for the leak of DNC emails to WikiLeaks; and (ii) Seth Rich was murdered by a Democrat operative because he leaked the emails to WikiLeaks."
According to Wheeler, he and Butowsky met with former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer before the story was published. Wheeler says he gave Spicer a copy of his investigative notes and that Butowsky kept Spicer "abreast of developments" in the investigation, per Spicer's request.
Wheeler says that after Fox News ran the story, he called Butowsky and demanded an explanation for the quotes attributed to him, which he said Zimmerman fabricated. Butowsky told him the quotes appeared in the story because "that is the way the president wanted them in the article," Wheeler says.
Spicer confirmed to NPR reporter David Folkenflik, who broke news of the lawsuit, that he'd met with Wheeler and Butowsky, but he said he did so as a favor to Butowsky, a longtime Trump supporter. Spicer denied Wheeler's allegation of Trump's involvement in the story.
"Ed's been a longtime supporter of the president and asked to meet to catch up," Spicer said.
Text messages included in the suit, allegedly sent by Butowsky to Wheeler, seem to show that Butowsky believed the president read the story before publication. "Not to add any more pressure, but the president just read the article," Butowsky writes. "He wants the article out immediately. It's now all up to you. But don't feel the pressure."
Butowsky told Folkenflik he was joking about Trump's participation.
On Tuesday afternoon, Fox News President Jay Wallace denied any fabrication by Zimmerman or collusion with the White House. "The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous," Wallace said. "The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally, and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman."