A strange set of characters from some of the highest and lowest positions in the American right gathered one morning in September 2017 at an affluent neighborhood outside of Dallas.
One of their topics was responding to online critics of wealthy Texas businessman Ed Butowsky, who had recently been outed as a driving force behind a retracted Fox News story about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
The group that gathered at Butowsky’s home included a conspiracy theorist, a Fox reporter fighting for her career, a former private intelligence contractor married to star journalist Lara Logan, and a Democratic PR operative who lost his business in the face of sexual-assault allegations. The group also included Thomas Schoenberger and Manuel “Defango” Chavez, two notorious internet provocateurs who had recently launched a self-proclaimed “elite” company that promised to use bots and sow “targeted chaos” to defend its clients online.
According to some attendees, the solutions discussed at the September get-together went to extremes. Three people who attended the gathering said the group even discussed the possibility of wiretapping and surveilling Rich’s grieving parents.
In a sworn deposition last year, Schoenberger claims Butowsky wanted to “hear a pin drop” in the Rich’s Omaha, Nebraska, kitchen.
“They wanted it to the point where they can listen to every room and hear discussions,” Schoenberger said in a sworn deposition last year about the gathering. “They literally wanted ears in every room.”
Butowsky strongly disputes Schoenberger’s wiretapping claims and The Daily Beast could find no evidence that anyone in the group actually carried out surveillance on Rich’s family. Butowsky points to Schoenberger’s criminal history—a 2011 felony stalking charge and a 2014 misdemeanor DUI—to argue that his allegations about what occurred at Butowsky’s house can’t be trusted.
“Nobody wiretapped anybody, nobody attempted to wiretap anybody, nobody discussed wiretapping anybody, and quite frankly, I don’t know what wiretapping is,” Butowsky said.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Butowsky confirmed the list of guests at his house, although he disputed the characterization of it as a “meeting.”
“It was just like a sit-down and chat,” said Butowsky. “Nothing happened. There wasn’t like some meeting where we left with plans. It was a bunch of people explaining how reputation management worked on Twitter.”
The varied group, according to Butowsky, included Schoenberger, Chavez, outspoken Rich conspiracy theorist Matt Couch and an associate, Logan’s husband Joe Burkett, as well as Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, who was the author of the retracted Fox story.
They were joined by Trevor FitzGibbon, a former Democratic PR bigwig whose firm once worked with groups like MoveOn and NARAL, but collapsed in 2015 in the face of sexual-harassment and assault allegations against him. (FitzGibbon denied those allegations and never faced criminal charges.) According to Schoenberger and Chavez, FitzGibbon teamed up with them in August 2017 to launch “Shadowbox,” their “elite” online reputation firm. Butowsky was their first client.
Zimmerman, FitzGibbon, Fox News, and Rich’s parents didn’t respond to requests for comment. Burkett, a former intelligence contractor, could not be reached for comment. Both Couch and lawyers for Aaron Rich, citing the lawsuit, declined to comment.
But the fact that marginal internet characters like Schoenberger and Chavez could be called to a gathering with political players like Butowsky—who enjoys connections to the White House, Fox News, and at least one leading House Republican—offers a glimpse into how conspiracy theories are bleeding into political life. It also raises questions about how far Trump allies will go to vindicate their wild theories about Rich.
Rich’s unsolved July 2016 murder in Washington, D.C., which police believe was a botched robbery, has fueled years of right-wing conspiracy theories. In most versions, the baseless claim is that Rich was murdered by Hillary Clinton or her allies for leaking Democratic emails to WikiLeaks in the run-up to the presidential election.
For Trump fans, that story has the value of absolving any connections between the president’s campaign and Russia, since it would mean that an insider, not Russian hackers, obtained and leaked the emails.
Butowsky, who enjoyed front-row tickets at Trump’s inauguration and regularly appeared on Fox News as an unpaid advocate for Trump’s agenda, saw that value as well. In a recording of a conversation obtained by NPR in January 2017, he fretted that questions about Russian election interference would undermine Trump’s legitimacy—but noted that the theory about Rich’s death “changes all of that.”
Butowsky offered to fund a private investigator to investigate the murder on the Rich family’s behalf, eventually teaming up with former D.C. cop Rod Wheeler. The pair met with White House press secretary Sean Spicer to discuss the case, and Wheeler claimed in a 2019 deposition that Butowsky also connected him with a staffer for then-House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA).
The duo also worked closely with Zimmerman, with Butowsky urging Wheeler at one point to conceal their connection to the Fox reporter from Rich’s family. But Zimmerman’s Fox News story claiming that the FBI had seen evidence Rich was in touch with WikiLeaks fell apart rapidly when it was published in May 2017. Nevertheless, Fox host Sean Hannity became an outspoken proponent of the the WikiLeaks claim, losing advertisers as Rich’s grieving family begged for an end to the politically motivated speculation about their son’s murder, and Fox retracted the story.
Butowsky fumed afterward. He claims his family received threats amid the media attention, and was unhappy about an NPR story from reporter David Folkenflik that both highlighted his role in the Fox story and raised questions about whether Butowsky had exaggerated his business and educational achievements in an interview with a reporter for D Magazine (Butowsky claimed the errors were made by the magazine, which the reporter disputed). In March 2018, Rich’s brother Aaron Rich filed a lawsuit against Butowsky and Couch, alleging that they smeared him by linking him to the Democratic email hack. (It was through depositions and documents in that lawsuit that the September 2017 gathering in Butowsky’s home first came to light.)
In June 2018, Butowsky sued NPR over Folkenflik’s reporting. He told The Daily Beast that the NPR story and the ensuing attention prompted him to hire Chavez and Schoenberger through Shadowbox. A draft contract Chavez provided to Aaron Rich’s attorneys specified that Butowsky would pay the company $40,000 a month, although it’s not clear whether Butowsky eventually signed it. In his deposition, Schoenberger said Butowsky paid the company $20,000.
“All these things were happening in this Twitter world, and these guys said they were experts in reputation management,” Butowsky said.
While Butowsky describes their work as “reputation management,” Shadowbox internal documents, obtained by The Daily Beast, describe its work more in more aggressive terms. “We address smear assaults head-on by custom-creating shadow ‘bot’ campaigns as a counter strategy,” one pitch read. “We use targeted chaos to confuse your opponents.”
In its internal documents, the company describes itself as “your army” and promises to use “cyber-guerrilla tactics.”
“Where your enemies have lied to paint you as the bad guy, we sow the seeds of doubt and present the counter-narrative that they are, in fact, the villains, and you have been unjustly accused,” the document reads. “We do this through sophisticated use of internet technology, meme creation, PR, and cyber-guerrilla tactics that stop the bleeding and begin to sway public opinion and the media in your favor.”
A second pitch promised to use “deep recon on your competitors (sic) next move.”
Chavez and Schoenberger are notorious figures in the small but intense world of YouTube and Twitter conspiracy theorists, where Pizzagate and QAnon believers share space with others who are just out to cause trouble. Chavez regularly broadcasts the details of internecine internet vendettas to a few hundred viewers on his YouTube channel, while Schoenberger is mired in elaborate feuds that make little sense to anyone outside of them.
They claim to be involved with “Cicada 3301,” a mysterious group behind a set of famous internet puzzles that’s been profiled in Rolling Stone. Chavez has used that connection to suggest, inconclusively, that he’s one of the founders of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Despite the odd trail they left on the internet, Schoenberger and Chavez managed to sell themselves as capable henchmen for clearing Butowksy’s name.
“When I first spoke to this guy, he said, ‘I can do this, I can do this, I have these bots,’” Butowsky said of Schoenberger. “I don’t even know what a bot is, by the way.”
But while Butowsky insists he only hired Chavez and Schoenberger to help his online image, a recorded video conference obtained by The Daily Beast suggests that their relationship had more sinister goals, at least in some instances.
In the gathering, Butowsky appeared to urge Schoenberger and Chavez to turn their internet harassment skills on Stuart Blaugrund, a Dallas attorney and one-time Butowsky acquaintance who had become critical of Butowsky’s role in the Rich conspiracy theory.
Fuming over an email from Blaugrund in the video conference, Butowsky appeared to urge Chavez and Schoenberger to publicize Blaugrund’s personal information online.
“I could go, like, on Facebook and let everybody know his phone number,” Butowsky said, reading out Blaugrund’s phone number and email address. “Or his email, that would be kind of weird, and show his picture and then tell everybody, ‘Hey, look at all of his activities, look at his relationships,’ and then maybe express your feelings towards him directly of any kind, and do it for the rest of your life. I could do that, and I just don’t know if that’s proper.”
Then Butowsky shrugged at the camera, urging Schoenberger and Chavez to “please let me know” what they thought he should do.
Asked about the video and what he meant for Schoenberger and Chavez to do after it, Butowsky said he couldn’t “recall” it.
For his part, Blaugrund was baffled by the experience of being a target of the alliance between Butowsky, Schoenberger, and Chavez.
“I don’t know if Ed’s a true believer, if he’s just trying to mix it up and get publicity and notoriety for himself, I have no idea,” Blaugrund told The Daily Beast.
Schoenberger and Chavez weren’t the only people at Butowsky’s house that day in September 2017. Butowsky claims that Burkett, who reportedly worked to plant positive stories about American soldiers in Iraqi media during the occupation of that country, was there to see him about “the source of a mean tweet” about Butowsky.
Couch has been one of the most vocal proponents of Seth Rich conspiracies, declaring without evidence that Aaron Rich had received money from WikiLeaks and had advance knowledge of his brother’s murder. In social-media posts leading up to the gathering, Couch declared that it was “one of those meetings that literally you have to go to,” without mentioning who he was seeing.
“It’s dangerous,” Couch said in a livestreamed video. “It scares the hell out of us, but we know we have to be there.”
In a court filing, Couch confirmed that he attended the get-together with Joshua Flippo, who works for Couch’s America First Media Group, to get information on Seth Rich, and saw Zimmerman there.
“We left the meeting disappointed and felt like we were the most educated guys in the room on the case,” Couch’s filing reads.
After they parted ways, Couch blasted NPR’s Folkenflik and Rich family’s then-spokesman Brad Bauman—both of whom are Butowsky’s perceived foes—on social media, claiming that they were being paid by shadowy forces. Despite Couch’s description of the get-together as being related to Rich, Butowsky claims he didn’t discuss Rich with Couch at the September gathering.
“He has Seth Rich on the brain,” Butowsky said. “I don’t.”
Butowsky strenuously denies any discussion of wiretapping or surveillance at the gathering. But Chavez confirmed that people at the gathering did discuss wiretapping or otherwise surveilling the Riches, although he claims that Schoenberger, not Butowsky, brought it up.
“Thomas was offering me up for shit that I just didn’t do,” said Chavez, who denied that any hacking, wiretapping, or other law-breaking actually occurred.
Another Shadowbox employee who attended the September 2017 gathering and requested not to be named because of concerns about their safety confirmed that the idea of wiretapping Rich’s family was discussed, but said it wasn’t clear to them at the time how serious the idea was.
“It wasn’t like some formal proposition,” the former employee said.
Regardless of the formality of the proposition, Aaron Rich’s lawyers have found the allegation of wiretapping credible enough to use in court motions in his legal case against Butowsky and Couch.
“There was discussion about hacking and surveilling [Aaron Rich] and his family,” Rich’s attorneys wrote in a court motion describing the September 2017 gathering.
Butowsky confirmed that he had hired Shadowbox, claiming that he wanted its help in the face of an onslaught of online attacks and threats after his role in Fox’s Rich story was revealed.
Butowsky put both Schoenberger and Chavez up in a Dallas-area hotel, telling The Daily Beast he spent roughly $5,000 renting them rooms for over a month. Chavez compiled a list of Butowsky’s “Top Haters,” including Aaron Rich’s attorney, former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, HuffPost reporter Travis Waldron, and then-Newsweek reporter Michael Hayden.
“It’s time to stop playing around with these guys and play some hardball with your haters,” Chavez wrote in an email to Butowsky.
But Butowsky soon came to believe that Schoenberger and Chavez were less interested in working for their company and more interested in crafting their online personas.
“They just sat in a hotel room and played on Twitter and YouTube all day,” Butowsky said.
Schoenberger concedes that late-night YouTube livestreaming—and the unusual sleep schedule it led to—became a point of contention between Chavez and Schoenberger and their wealthy patron.
“It was a mess,” Schoenberger told The Daily Beast.
It was an unusual relationship for a wealthy man who counts Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg as a friend, offers financial advice to top athletes, and shares an attorney, Steven Biss, with Rep. Nunes (Biss is working for Nunes on suing, among others, the operator of a parody account posing as cow owned by Nunes).
Eventually, Butowsky became disgruntled with Schoenberger, alleging that Schoenberger failed to perform website work for Butowsky’s rabbi that Schoenberger had already been paid for (Schoenberger says he refunded the rabbi).
Butowsky claims he eventually kicked Schoenberger out of the hotel. Chavez and Schoenberger have since fallen out themselves, in a feud over who controls the rights to a potential TV show inspired by their internet puzzle efforts. It’s not clear how far along the efforts for their puzzle show were, but Schoenberger had talked to an entertainment lawyer about a potential contract.
“Apparently those guys got into the fight in the puzzle world, the ‘very exciting’ online puzzle world,” Butowsky said sarcastically. “They got into some fight, and now there’s a war going on in the puzzle world between them.”