Fox News star Sean Hannity was once his network’s most prominent booster of conspiracy theories about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, only stopping the rumor-mongering after Rich’s grieving parents publicly begged him to knock it off.
Now, Hannity will have to answer questions, under oath, about Fox’s coverage of Rich’s death. Hannity, along with Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and a host of Fox staffers, is set to be deposed in late October over the network’s debunked reporting on Rich, which falsely claimed that he had leaked thousands of Democratic emails to WikiLeaks—a leak, they suggested, that led to his politically-motivated murder.
The depositions have been scheduled as part of an emotional distress and tortious interference lawsuit that Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich, filed against Fox, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, and wealthy conservative and former Fox News guest Ed Butowsky. The deposition schedule was revealed in a Thursday court filing made by the Rich family.
Both the Richs’ legal team and Fox News didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Rich’s unsolved July 2016 murder in Washington, D.C. became grist for pro-Trump conspiracy theorists almost as soon as it happened. While police believe Rich was killed as part of a botched robbery, Trump supporters on the internet’s fringes claimed that Hillary Clinton had ordered Rich to be killed as revenge for leaking Democratic emails.
Conveniently, this conspiracy theory would mean that Rich, not Russian hackers, was behind the theft of the emails and their publication by WikiLeaks. The claim has gone on to be repeatedly debunked, by both former Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The conspiracy theories about Rich’s murder made the jump to Fox News on May 16, 2017, with a FoxNews.com story from Zimmerman claiming the FBI found evidence of WikiLeaks ties on Rich’s computer. Hannity became an enthusiastic supporter of those claims, describing Zimmerman’s story as potentially “one of the biggest scandals in American history.” Even after Fox retracted Zimmerman’s story, Hannity refused to back down, declaring on his radio show that “I retracted nothing.”
Hannity’s deposition in the case is scheduled for Oct. 30, with the Rich family’s lawyers committing that it won’t take more than half a day. Dobbs, who also promoted Zimmerman’s story, is scheduled for a half-day deposition on Oct. 7.
After Zimmerman’s story was published, another Fox News host, Laura Ingraham, slammed the media for an “aggressive lack of curiosity” about Rich’s murder. But Fox has fought the Rich family’s efforts to depose Ingraham, according to the filing by Rich’s parents.
“Fox’s counsel said yesterday that they would refuse to allow one of those employees (Laura Ingraham) to be deposed,” the document reads.
It’s not clear from court records whether Fox similarly tried to stop depositions of Hannity and Dobbs. But in the court filing, a lawyer for the Rich family writes that, aside from depositions for Ingraham and a corporate representative of Fox News, “every single other Fox News employee has been scheduled,” including Hannity and Dobbs.
The Rich family is also seeking to depose Fox legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano, but it’s not clear whether Napolitano has agreed to be deposed. Fox News contributor and former Speaker Newt Gingrich is also listed as a potential witness for deposition, although court documents don’t reveal whether his deposition has been scheduled.
The lawyers for the Rich family are also set to depose a host of top Fox News executives. Depositions have been scheduled this fall for Fox News vice president Bill Sammon and Fox News Media president Jay Wallace, among other top staffers, according to the filing. Top Fox publicist Irena Briganti is scheduled to be deposed in November.
The Rich lawsuit centers on interactions between Fox staffers and Butowsky, who paid a private investigator to look into Rich’s murder on behalf of Rich’s family and communicated frequently with Zimmerman in the run-up to the story’s publication.
While the depositions will only become public if they’re released as part of the case, the lawsuit has already revealed details about Fox’s reaction to its story falling apart, with one top editor declaring that the network would be “vindicated.” In June 2017, for example, Fox president of programming Suzanne Scott—reacting to an email that Butowsky had been spotted in Fox’s New York City headquarters—warned staffers to avoid him.
“Please quietly spread the word that we should stay away from him,” Scott wrote in an email.
Document discovery in the case has already turned up at least one email between Butowsky and Hannity. On May 23, 2017, Butowsky emailed Hannity at the host’s personal AOL account and offered to show him evidence bolstering his allegations about Rich’s murder.
“As you probably have read, I’m at the center of the Seth Rich WikiLeaks uncovering,” Butowsky wrote to Hannity, before unspooling various conspiracy theories about Rich’s murder.
It’s not clear from court filings whether Hannity replied.