Citing a former Fox News contributor-turned-private-eye, a local Fox station reported that slain DNC staffer Seth Rich was “communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death” and it could be proven with “tangible evidence on Rich's laptop.”
But a spokesman for Rich’s family said there’s a gaping hole in the Fox 5 D.C.’s report: That private investigator, Rod Wheeler, doesn’t have access to Rich’s laptop.
“We know where Seth’s personal computer is. We know where his DNC computer is. Neither [Rod Wheeler] nor anybody else has it,” Brad Bauman, who is representing the Rich family, told The Daily Beast.
Rich was murdered shortly after 4 a.m. a block away from his home in July of last year. His work as a Democratic National Committee staffer—during an election cycle in which his employer was hacked—fueled conspiracy theories from the far right. Until Tuesday, those theories were mostly relegated to websites like InfoWars and 4chan, but Fox News brought those conspiracies to the mainstream after Wheeler’s claims on Tuesday.
The WikiLeaks claim, which trended on Twitter most of Tuesday and reached Fox News’ national telecast and website, is the latest in a war between two political consultants on opposite sides of the aisle to frame Rich’s death as part of a larger global conspiracy, according to the family’s spokesperson.
One, spearheaded by a “Never Trump” Republican named Jack Burkman, alleges Rich’s death was perpetrated by the Russian government.
Wheeler, a Fox News contributor whom the family said is funded by a pro-Trump Breitbart writer, spread the other conspiracy—that Rich’s death was tied to a communication with WikiLeaks for which he did not provide evidence of its existence.
Both have been given permission by the family to conduct independent investigations, but were not paid by the family, as other outlets reported, said Bauman.
“There is one overwhelming fact in this entire thing every few months: There are people who continuously use Seth Rich and his murder to further their political goals,” said Bauman. “It’s my hope those people get what’s coming to them.”
Fox 5 D.C. reported that Wheeler had been “hired by the Rich family.” Bauman said that this also “isn’t true,” and that Wheeler was entirely independently funded. Bauman then claimed Wheeler had been hired by Ed Butowsky, a Dallas-based, pro-Trump wealth manager who regularly appears on Fox Business and writes about the economy for Breitbart.
The Daily Beast reached out to Butowsky for comment, but he didn’t respond at press time. He told MSNBC that “I didn’t pay anybody. I didn’t hire anybody” on Tuesday afternoon.
For his part, Wheeler once appeared on The O’Reilly Factor to report on a “national underground network” of “violent lesbian gangs” in 2007. The Southern Poverty Law Center criticized the segment for fabricating nonexistent gangs of women who were “forcibly indoctrinating children as young as 10” to become lesbians.
Still, the far right seized on Wheeler’s story Tuesday that Rich was “absolutely” linked to WikiLeaks before his murder last July. While President Trump’s accidental leak of confidential information to Russia took over the front pages of most mainstream news sites, Fox News ran a story titled “Slain DNC Staffer Had Contact With WikiLeaks, Say Multiple Sources.” The story’s broader implication is that Rich was murdered for providing emails to WikiLeaks.
NBC News later further debunked the Fox News story, confirming the FBI never possessed Rich’s laptop, despite Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman’s claim that an agent at the bureau had access to the computer. The title was later amended to read “Family of slain DNC staffer Seth Rich blasts detective over report of WikiLeaks link.”
That story, now discredited, remains with its original title on Fox News’ sister site, Fox Nation.
Meanwhile, stories about Trump’s ties to Russia were relegated to below-the-fold billing on FoxNews.com.
“Throughout the last year, various folks have taken advantage of the Rich family in order to push their own political agendas. It is disgusting,” said Bauman.
Fox 5 D.C. is not new to running stories about Seth Rich’s death that imply a global conspiracy without asking for proof or involving Rich’s family.
In March, the station ran a segment about a “possible break in the case” citing claims from lobbyist Jack Burkman, but again providing no evidence. That story, which placed the blame for Rich’s death on the opposite side of the political aisle to Fox 5 D.C.’s most recent report, wasn’t mentioned in its WikiLeaks story on Tuesday.
During the 2016 election cycle, Burkman worked as a lobbyist for an anti-Trump GOP group called Free The Delegates.
The Daily Beast was approached in February by the public relations firm representing Burkman and his investigation, but chose not to write a story. Glenn Selig, who runs the PR firm, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that Burkman didn’t have access to Rich’s computer either, and put out a press release demanding proof from Wheeler that Rich had ties to WikiLeaks.
“This was a surprise to us as well,” said Selig, who added that Burkman is working with students at George Washington University’s forensics department to try to uncover Rich’s killers. “Our investigation is independent of the family. I know nothing about this investigator. It’s possible this guy went rogue.”
Bauman said Fox’s two contradictory stories, which don’t mention each other, “provide cover to the actual murderers to stay underground even longer.”
“If there’s a God in heaven, he would shut down that editorial department,” said Bauman. “First it was Russia, now it’s WikiLeaks. All they seem to be interested in doing is courting controversy. All they’re doing is they’re impeding on the ability for the Metropolitan Police Department to do its job.”
Amidst the firestorm, Seth Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Ann Rich, released a statement to debunk Wheeler’s invented bombshell, which reached the top of most alt-right websites by Tuesday afternoon.
“As we’ve seen through the past year of unsubstantiated claims, we see no facts, we have seen no evidence, we have been approached with no emails and only learned about this when contacted by the press,” it read. “We are a family who is committed to facts, not fake evidence that surfaces every few months to fill the void and distract law enforcement and the general public from finding Seth’s murderers.”
When asked how Rich’s parents are handling the fallout of Wheeler’s allegations, Bauman said they are “absolutely devastated.”