Conservative media claimed the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer would lead to scandal for the party. So far the conspiracy theorists are the only ones facing legal action.
After the death of Seth Rich in July 2016, right-wingers pushed a conspiracy theory claiming Rich had leaked DNC documents to Wikileaks and that Democratic operatives had ordered his murder in retaliation. (He was killed in a suspected robbery attempt and no suspect has been arrested.) The theory was debunked by law enforcement and resulted in a retraction from Fox News, which had claimed Rich was in contact with Wikileaks.
But Rich’s family and their associates say they faced harassment from the theory’s true believers. On Monday, Brad Bauman, an unpaid spokesperson for the Rich family filed a defamation suit against a Fox News insider, a far-right media group and its founder, and an InfoWars contributor. Bauman claims the defendants smeared him as a DNC “hitman” who had been “assigned” to cover up Rich’s death.
Bauman’s is not the first lawsuit stemming from Rich’s death. Rich’s parents and brother separately filed suit against the conspiracy’s peddlers, accusing them of defamation and negligence in their reporting. A retired detective quoted in Fox News’ article sued the network, claiming the network recklessly pushed the story because President Donald Trump had read an unpublished draft, and had wanted to see the story go live.
Bauman’s suit alleges a pattern of harassment now familiar to people close to Rich. Shortly after Rich’s murder on July 10, 2016, the 27-year-old DNC staffer’s parents enlisted Bauman to speak for the grieving family. But some conspiracy theorists claimed Bauman had a more sinister mission.
InfoWars contributor Howard Heavin began referring to Bauman as a “DNC political hitman,” videos quoted in Bauman’s suit show. Other defendants claimed the DNC had “assigned” Bauman to the Rich family to cover up what they claimed was Rich’s plot to leak DNC documents. Fringe-right new site America First Media and its founder Matt Couch, both of whom are named as defendants in Bauman’s case, claimed Bauman was a DNC “crisis fixer” involved in a “cover-up.”
And Ed Butowsky, a financier and Fox News insider who reportedly helped organize Fox’s retracted article on Rich, told multiple media outlets Bauman was lying about Rich’s death. Bauman told right-wing conspiracy site WorldNetDaily that the DNC had “assigned” Bauman to the Rich family, and told CNN that Bauman was “simply a hired guy who will say anything” including “crafting a lie” about Rich’s death.
Even after Fox New retracted its story, America First Media and Couch waged a deliberate campaign of harassment against Bauman, he alleges. His suit points to a January 2018 tweet in which Couch states one of AFM’s 2018 goals a “continue to be the reason Brad Bauman buys stock in Tums,” referring to the heartburn medication sometimes taken by people experiencing stress or anxiety.
Bauman also accuses an AFM employee of publicizing his phone number and email address.
But what was bad publicity for Bauman was good money for AFM, he alleges. In their articles on Bauman and the Rich family, AFM linked to a GoFundMe page, which claimed to raise money for the outlet’s investigation into Rich’s murder. The GoFundMe raised more than $20,000, Bauman alleges. After the page was removed, AFM relocated its fundraising efforts to the sites Fundly and Patreon.
As of mid-May, Couch was still tweeting fundraiser for AFM’s Seth Rich investigation.