The parents of Seth Rich, the young Democratic aide whose unsolved murder became grist for right-wing conspiracy theories about the 2016 presidential race, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Fox News, claiming that the network’s coverage helped fuel damaging rumors about their son.
Also named in the suit is former Hawaii reporter Malia Zimmerman, who wrote the story for Fox News.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, accuses Fox News of “extreme and outrageous” conduct. It claims that Zimmerman and a regular Fox News guest, Ed Butowsky, intentionally fabricated a story that portrayed Rich as the person who leaked thousands of internal Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks in 2016, which released them to the public in an act that proved damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
That story, published on the Fox News website on May 16, 2017, implied that the murder of Rich on the streets of Washington occurred in retaliation for his having leaked the emails. No evidence to support that theory emerged during an investigation by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, and Rich’s family said they believed that Rich, 27, was killed during an attempted robbery.
Fox News retracted the article a week after it was published, saying that it did not meet network standards.
Still, the theory about Rich persisted, cited by prominent conservatives like Newt Gingrich and right-wing broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones of InfoWars. The rumors about Rich proved useful for pundits seeking to undercut the notion that Russian forces supporting Donald Trump’s campaign were responsible for the leak.
Sean Hannity, of Fox News, was one of the most vocal proponents of the theory, although he eventually backed off after his network’s retraction.
Zimmerman was the founder and editor of the former hawaiireporter.com website, which she ran for about a dozen years until taking a job with Fox News in 2015. This is not her first brush with controversy. In 1999, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ben Cayetano’s office filed a complaint with the Honolulu Community/Media Council against the Pacific Business News in response to articles Zimmerman wrote that were critical of the administration.
Zimmerman was eventually fired from PBN, and the governor’s spokeswoman withdrew her complaint against PBN.
Fox News said Tuesday that it could not comment on pending litigation. The lawsuit was first reported by ABC News.
The suit’s allegations zero in on the role of Butowsky, a wealthy Trump supporter whose involvement in the Fox News coverage of Rich is already the subject of a separate lawsuit.
In August, a private detective hired by the Rich family sued Fox News for defamation and racial discrimination, claiming that the network had fabricated quotes attributed to him as part of a coordinated effort with the White House to smear Rich. (Fox News denied the charges.) The detective, Rod Wheeler, who was himself a Fox News contributor, also claimed that Butowsky had coordinated with the Trump administration to plant the story.
Wheeler said Butowsky met with Sean Spicer, then the White House press secretary, to discuss the investigation into Rich’s death shortly before the Fox News story was published. The White House confirmed that the Spicer meeting occurred, but denied any involvement in the story by the administration.
Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich, claim in the new lawsuit that Butowsky took advantage of their grief over their son’s death to ingratiate himself into their lives and manipulate them into hiring Wheeler to aid with their investigation.
In a statement on Tuesday, Joel and Mary Rich wrote: “The pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son’s life and legacy treated as a mere political football is beyond comprehension.”
Star-Advertiser staff contributed to this report.