Former D.C. detective Rod Wheeler isn’t happy that his name got wrapped up in the Seth Rich story. “I really regret getting involved,” says Wheeler during an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog. “I regret it because everybody had political motives and I didn’t.”
Another possible source of regret: The defamation case that Wheeler, who has worked as a private investigator and a Fox News contributor, filed last August against Fox News, its parent company and others, is flailing. Just this week, the lawyer representing Wheeler — Michael Willemin of the frequent-Fox News-targeting law firm Wigdor LLP — told the court that there has been an “irrevocable breakdown of the attorney-client relationship” with Wheeler. The firm has informed Wheeler that it would be filing a motion to withdraw from the case.
Asked about the reasons for the split, Wheeler responded, “I wish I knew. It surprised me when they did notify me that they were dropping me.” He and his lawyers, Wheeler said, didn’t see eye to eye on the “paths forward” and conceded that it “looked like the judge would probably dismiss the case.”
That case stems from one of the most awful pieces of scribbling in modern times. In May 2017, FoxNews.com published a story by investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman seeking to establish a connection between Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was fatally shot on a District street in July 2016, and the WikiLeaks dumps of purloined emails from the organization. After a public backlash, Fox News retracted the story.
But in his lawsuit, Wheeler claimed he had suffered reputational harm from two quotes from him in the story, one of which said, “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.” Wheeler disavowed those quotes and charged that the story was an attempt by Zimmerman — with the assistance of a Trump supporter and financial adviser named Ed Butowsky — to accomplish a political end. Quotes attributed to Wheeler, notes the complaint, were “fabricated to lend support to the claim that Seth Rich, and not the Russians, was the source for the DNC emails released on WikiLeaks.” Wheeler was paid by Butowsky for his work on the case.
At a Feb. 28 hearing before U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels, Kevin Baine of the law firm Williams & Connolly advanced a triple-barreled argument as to why Wheeler’s claims had no merit: “Number one, that these quotes were accurate in that they accurately reflected Mr. Wheeler’s position. Number two, he consented to their publication because he had them in advance and he didn’t say I object. And three, that the quotes are not defamatory,” said Baine.
The lawyer further argued that Wheeler’s input was consistent with reporting gathered from another federal investigator cited in the story. “It suggests he’s right because it says his findings were consistent with those of a federal investigator who read the actual emails,” Baine said. “So we don’t even have a situation here in which the plaintiff was portrayed as being wrong on a single instance much less as being generally incompetent.”
Willemin argued, “They attribute it to him, that he was able to determine that there were e-mails exchanged between WikiLeaks and Seth Rich. And that’s not something that he was able to determine, nor is it something that he ever said in that kind of context or even at all in any of the other statements he made.”
At the crux of the courtroom battle was the degree to which Wheeler believed the things that were attributed to him in the retracted article. The judge treated Willemin to an extended, twisted, semantically loaded, mildly accusatory grilling. For instance:
Daniels: If I said based on his investigation, as a result of his investigation, he believes that there are email exchanges between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks, would that be a false statement?
Willemin: We lost the strong possibility clause there.
Daniels: We did. I’m trying to figure out whether you say that takes it into the category of being false or not. I don’t know why that takes it into the category of being false. Would you say that was false?
Willemin: I’m not trying to hide the ball here.
Daniels: You’re not giving me a reasonable answer here. You are avoiding the question. The question is not that complicated. And you’re right, it may not be a relevant question and it may not be your case. But it seems like a very simple question with a very simple answer. It seems like everybody in this room knows what the answer to that question is except you. Even the people at your table have to know what the answer to that question is. He would not say that it’s a false statement, that based on his investigation he has concluded that he believes that there are email exchanges between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks. He would not say that that was a false statement, right? You’re not going to concede that?
Willemin: Your Honor, it’s just not the way he put it.
Daniels: I didn’t ask you how he put it. That’s the way I put it. I asked you whether or not that would be a false statement.
Willemin: My knowledge of what he believes or doesn’t believe —
Daniels: I didn’t ask you what he believes or what he doesn’t believe. I asked you whether he would say what I just said was a false statement. I’ll give you one more chance to answer that. But I can tell you the way I work. If you can’t answer my question yes or no, I usually pick the one that’s against you. So you had better give me a yes or no and give me a reason for it or I’m going to take the answer that hurts you because I can’t ask you ten times and you not want to give me a straight answer.
Willemin: I think as phrased he would say that is false.
Daniels: In what way is that false? What part of that is false?
Willemin: The definitiveness of the belief.
The Court: Do you listen to yourself? The definitiveness of a belief? There is no such thing as a definitiveness of a belief. There is a definitiveness of facts and then there are beliefs. There is no such thing as a definitive belief.
Willemin: Your Honor, the subject of the belief in the hypothetical is the belief that there are these emails.
That’s a skeptical judge.
Asked for details on the split with Wheeler, Willemin told the Erik Wemple Blog via email, “The professional rules of conduct prohibit me from commenting.”
The Wheeler suit, of course, is just one of Fox News’s ongoing legal headaches. The parents of Seth Rich have sued the network for damages related to emotional distress resulting from the story. And on Tuesday, the network announced the settlement of racial and gender discrimination suits for a reported $10 million. Wigdor LLP represented the plaintiffs in the case.