Malia Zimmerman, the Fox News reporter being sued in connection with the Seth Rich murder case, founded a news site in Hawaii that was perceived as having a conservative tilt and was funded by a Franklin Center watchdog project.
Zimmerman was well-known in Hawaii, where she won awards for her journalism but was also involved in controversies involving the former governor and a top Republican state senator.
The lawsuit alleges that President Donald Trump and former presidential Press Secretary Sean Spicer were involved in pushing Zimmerman’s Fox News story on Rich and WikiLeaks that was later retracted. The suit, by private investigator Rod Wheeler, alleges that Zimmerman fabricated quotes as part of a plot to divert attention from Russian hacking claims; Fox News denies the story was written to discredit the Trump/Russia story and says the retraction is still being investigated and that there is no evidence that Zimmerman misquoted Wheeler.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in an August 1 press briefing, denied the allegations about Trump in the lawsuit. “He had no knowledge of this story and it’s completely untrue that there was White House involvement in this story,” Sanders said.
“Beyond that, this is ongoing litigation and I’d refer you to the actual parties involved who aren’t the White House.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Zimmerman Is a Fox Reporter Focusing on Crime, Terrorism & Political Corruption & Once Accused Hawaii’s Governor of Bullying Her Out of a Job
The story in question was written by Zimmerman for Fox News and alleged there was evidence that Rich, a former DNC analyst, had leaked information to WikiLeaks. It has since been retracted. Rich was shot to death in 2016 on a Washington D.C. street. His murder is unsolved, and it’s sparked rampant conspiracy theories that his family hopes the Wheeler lawsuit will stop.
According to her Fox News bio, Malia Zimmerman “is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption.”
Recent stories include pieces headlined “Hillary Clinton sided with Russia on sanctions as Bill made $500G on Moscow speech” and “VA has fired 500 employees since Trump took office, report shows.”
The lawsuit defines her as an investigative reporter living in Los Angeles, California. The lawsuit was filed on August 1 in a New York federal court against Twenty-First Century Fox, Inc., Fox News Network LLC, Zimmerman, and Ed Butowsky.
Butowsky is a Trump supporter who hired Wheeler, the lawsuit says. Buzzfeed reported that Butowsky is “a prominent wealth manager from Dallas and a contributor to Breitbart News who attended President Trump’s inauguration,” who put the Seth Rich family in contact with Wheeler. Butowsky told CNN the claims are “bullsh*t.”
The lawsuit alleges that Butowsky is “a frequent contributor for Fox News and Fox Business Channel, an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and opponent of Hillary Clinton and a friend to former Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.”
Wheeler is a former Washington DC police homicide detective and is also a Fox News contributor.
Before being hired by Fox, Zimmerman had a colorful career in Hawaiian political journalism. Ian Lind, an investigative reporter in Hawaii, writing for the site, iLind, has posted a story dissecting Zimmerman’s background in that state, writing, “I don’t know whether the most recent allegations about Zimmerman’s reporting are true, but based on her prior work in Hawaii, I was not surprised to find her reporting at the center of this high-profile and politically-charged case.” He wrote that he believed she let ideology “get in the way of her reporting,” and wielded “innuendo to fit events.”
In the late 1990s, controversy erupted in Hawaii between Zimmerman and then Governor Benjamin Cayetano.
According to a lengthy American Journalism Review article on the controversy, Zimmerman said the governor “bullied her former employer into firing her and discouraged other news organizations from hiring her.”
“Zimmerman says she got on the bad side of Gov. Cayetano and his staff by writing carefully documented, hard-hitting stories critical of his administration during the almost three years she worked at Pacific Business News. Some of her articles concerned alleged voting irregularities in the 1998 election, which Democrat Cayetano won by a narrow margin, and business owners who said they’d been harassed and intimidated by state regulatory agencies after openly supporting Republican candidates or criticizing Cayetano’s policies,” reported AJR.
The governor’s spokeswoman told AJR that “Zimmerman’s stories were one-sided and full of errors and misquotes.” Jackie Kido, the spokeswoman, had “filed a complaint on behalf of the state with the Honolulu Community-Media Council, a volunteer organization that mediates disputes about news coverage,” reported AJR, which added that, “Though the story that sparked the complaint mostly involved another reporter, Kido wrote in her cover letter to the council that Zimmerman was the main problem. The complaint itself said Pacific Business News ‘continuously ignored journalistic ethics by willfully engaging in the practice of manipulating information and knowingly reporting inaccurate, unbalanced and unsubstantiated stories.'”
For its part, Pacific Business News, Zimmerman’s employer at the time, alleged that Kido’s complaint was full of “misrepresentations, inconsistencies and false evidence” but then fired Zimmerman, AJR reported.
One of Zimmerman’s most recent tweets was on a Fox News story that involved Cayetano.
She hasn’t tweeted much since the Rich story. She retweeted a link to her Rich story, but the underlying piece has been deleted. On Facebook, she has posted mostly recently on visiting Hawaii and sunsets.
2. Zimmerman Founded the Hawaii Reporter, Which Was Funded Largely By a Franklin Center Watchdog Project
Prior to joining Fox, Zimmerman was the founder and president of the Hawaii Reporter. “The Hawaii Reporter was a news website funded primarily by Watchdog.org, part of the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity,” the lawsuit says. “Zimmerman left the Hawaii Reporter in January 2015 to work for Fox News,” it says.
The Honolulu Civil Beat ran a story in 2015 reporting Zimmerman was leaving Hawaii to work for Fox. “The future of her 13-year-old website — her labor of love, as she calls it — is somewhat in doubt. Its primary funder, Watchdog.org — part of the conservative Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity — is looking for someone to take over,” the site reported.
The site lamented that Zimmerman was leaving, saying that more independent news voices are needed in Hawaii. “Most of the media leans to the left here, supporting liberal causes and Democrat politics,” Honolulu Civil Beat wrote. “Malia’s operation was one of very few associated with Republicans and conservative politics, thanks in large part to her main funding source. While she and her reporters practiced some of the best watchdog journalism in the state, there was no mistaking the conservative voices that often provided much of the secondary material she published.”
Her stories did not only deal with politics, though. Civil Beat reports that Zimmerman wrote stories on underage sex trafficking, “Laotian farm workers suffering at the hands of their overseers on Oahu,” and other gritty topics while in Hawaii.
“I’ve struggled really really hard to provide an independent voice in news in Hawaii,” she told the site, adding, “They’re ignoring stories that should be told, they’re protecting people, they’re protecting government.”
The Hawaii Reporter won a slew of Society of Professional Journalists reporting awards during her tenure there.
A judge’s comment on one of Zimmerman’s award-winning stories read, “Amazing series that captured the eye of the U.S., EPA, and US Department of Labor into some serious human rights abuses. A noteworthy effort to get the tough interviews crossing language and cultural boundaries to do it. These stories are compelling, sad and shocking.”
On LinkedIn, Zimmerman writes that she “previously ran Hawaii Reporter, an investigative news agency in Honolulu, for 12 years. Besides publishing daily news reports online at http://www.HawaiiReporter.com/, Malia produced news reports for a morning radio program, M-F, and hosted a weekly television talk show. She also produced and hosted a semi monthly inspirational magazine show on the CBS affiliate called ‘You’ve Got the Power.'”
Hawaii Reporter was known “for its investigative reports that focused on human trafficking, sex trafficking of minors, illegal gambling in Chinatown, a well publicized manslaughter case, the dilapidated juvenile a prominent University of Hawaii professor’s prostitution ring and corruption in Hawaii government,” she wrote.
Zimmerman page adds, “Malia has produced a special investigative report for ABC 20/20 and has been interviewed on that show. Malia has freelanced for People magazine, Inside Edition, Washington Times, and other national publications including the Wall Street Journal.”
The Franklin Center says its mission is to produce “public interest journalism that makes an impact. We are dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility, and highlight their absence in state and local governments.” Although the Franklin Center doesn’t disclose its donors, liberal advocacy sites have claimed the center has ties to major conservative funders, with one site labeling it the “right-wing’s dark money ATM.”
3. The Lawsuit Alleges that President Trump Read Zimmerman’s Story Before It Ran
The suit filed by PI Rod Wheeler, which you can read in full below, claims that then presidential Press Secretary Sean Spicer met with Wheeler and the Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky, who was pushing the story, before it ran on Fox. According to the lawsuit, on May 14, 2017, Wheeler received a text message from Butowsky that said Trump read the Fox story before it ran:
Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.
The lawsuit said the president referred to in the text message was Donald Trump. Zimmerman and Fox News published their story less than 36 hours later, alleging, the lawsuit says, “that a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, Seth Rich, was the source of the now infamous DNC emails leaked by WikiLeaks during the 2016 Presidential primaries.”
Rich’s family, in a statement on August 1, said they hope the lawsuit brings an end to the conspiracy theories surrounding Rich’s death.
You can read the Wheeler lawsuit in full here:
The lawsuit alleges, “after Mr. Wheeler confronted Zimmerman about her use of false quotes, Zimmerman sent a text to Mr. Wheeler that stated, ‘Reread the story we sent to you last night (with the false quotes) and stick to that script.’”
The lawsuit contends that Butowsky and Zimmerman called Wheeler “to inform him that they had supposedly secured a source at the FBI who confirmed that emails were sent between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” an anonymous source eventually cited in Zimmerman’s May 16, 2017 article.
The following day, on May 11, the lawsuit alleges, “Zimmerman sent Mr. Wheeler a draft of her story regarding the Seth Rich murder. The draft did not contain any quotes from Mr. Wheeler to the effect that Seth Rich had sent any emails to WikiLeaks, nor did the draft quote Mr. Wheeler as saying that the DNC, Democratic Party or Clintons were engaged in a cover-up.”
Three days later, Butowsky allegedly “informed Mr. Wheeler that President Trump had read Zimmerman’s story and wanted it published ‘immediately.’”
The lawsuit alleges, “The motivation behind the article: establish that Seth Rich provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails to shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Presidential election.”
The retracted Fox News story had initially reported a supposed bombshell: That there was evidence that Rich was leaking information to WikiLeaks. The network later retracted the story.
4. Fox Denies That the Story Was Published to Detract From Russian Collusion Coverage & Says It Has No Evidence Zimmerman Misquoted Wheeler
Fox has fought back against some of the key allegations in the lawsuit.
In a statement sent to Heavy, Fox President of News, Jay Wallace, said:
The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, FOX News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit – the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.
Heavy has asked Fox and Zimmerman for an interview; Fox responded in an email, “Malia Zimmerman is not commenting.”
Fox’s president of news told NPR in response to the lawsuit that there is no “concrete evidence” that Zimmerman misquoted Wheeler. Spicer told NPR “that he took the meeting as a favor to Butowsky, a reliable Republican voice. Spicer says he was unaware of any contact involving the president. Butowsky now tells NPR he was kidding about Trump’s involvement.”
The lawsuit also claims that Butkowsky left a voicemail for Wheeler the same day that said, “A couple minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House, on this. And, tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we’ve got to do. But you can feel free to say that the White House is onto this now.”
Wheeler alleges in the lawsuit that the reporter, Zimmerman “fabricated two quotations and attributed them to Mr. Wheeler.”
Those quotations were:
“My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.”
And: “My investigation shows someone within the DC government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward. That is unfortunate, Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.”
Alleges the lawsuit, “According to Butowsky, the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article. Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda.”
The suit alleges that Wheeler had to “correct the false record and “lost all credibility in the eyes of the public.”
Butowsky had contacted Wheeler and offered “to bankroll an investigation into Seth Rich’s murder,” in February 2017, the lawsuit alleges.
The suit alleges that Butowsky kept in “regular contact with Trump Administration officials,” including Spicer, White House strategist Steve Bannon and Director of Public Affairs at the Department of Justice, Sarah Flores, regarding “his efforts relating to Seth Rich.”
Furthermore, says the suit, Spicer met with Butowsky and Wheeler and they “provided him with a copy of Mr. Wheeler’s investigative notes.” The suit claims that “Mr. Spicer asked to be kept abreast of developments.”
Wheeler claims he confronted Butowsky after the story came out, and Butowsky wrote him, “I didn’t tell you yet but the federal government is involved at this moment, behind the scenes and believe your story.”
Butowsky sent messages to Fox News producers and to Wheeler that pushed the notion that the Russian narrative regarding DNC hacking was false and disproved by the Rich angle, the lawsuit contends.
Example of a text message he allegedly sent Wheeler: “The Narrative in the interviews you might use is that your and Malia’s work prove that the Russians didn’t hack into the DNC and steal the emails and impact our election.”
Fox News retracted the story on May 23 saying that it “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.”
Asked for comment, Wheeler’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, told Heavy, “According to the complaint, at the same time that 21st Century Fox’s General Counsel, Gerson Zweifach, was meeting with the UK regulators in an attempt to convince them that Fox had in place procedures to ensure compliance with broadcasting standards to purchase Sky, Fox News was working with the Trump administration to disseminate fake news in order to distract the public from Russia’s alleged attempts to influence our Country’s presidential election.”
5. Zimmerman Is a Self-Described Libertarian Concerned About Government Waste but Questions Were Raised About Her Reporting Before
The Honolulu Civil Beat story reported that Zimmerman was born and raised in Kailua and “waves off the conservative tag of Hawaii Reporter with a short laugh.”
“Personally, I’m a Libertarian,” she told the site, which labeled her “fiscally conservative but socially moderate to liberal” and reported she said the Hawaii Reporter “was aimed at the kind of issues everyone should appreciate — government waste, accountability and fraud.”
A journalist researching a story for Atavist magazine wrote a long piece questioning her reporting on a black Muslim gang leader and the Orlando Pulse massacre story after the Seth Rich story retraction, noting, “Fox News uses her stories to lend editorial heft to broadcast segments.” He reported that an FBI spokesman told him the agency had “found no substantive connection” between the imam in question and Pulse shooter Omar Mateen, despite Zimmerman reporting that “Mateen had enrolled in Robertson’s online seminary and received ‘spiritual guidance’ from the imam.”
A Hawaiian site, iLind, reported in 2015 on a lawsuit that Zimmerman had filed against Sam Slom, “the sole Republican in the Hawaii State Senate.”
The site called Zimmerman “the high-profile co-founder of Hawaii Reporter who pushed a conservative spin on news for well over a decade.” It reported that the suit alleged that Zimmerman was divorced with custody of her child when she met Slom and that she deserved equity in a home they had shared. His lawyer denied her allegations, the site reported. The Hawaii Free Press reported that Zimmerman dismissed the lawsuit after it settled.
In a story published August 1, Ian Lind of iLind reported, “The business, Hawaii Reporter, Inc., used the mailing address of Slom’s Small Business Hawaii, a pro-business advocacy group, according to state business registration records.Zimmerman later served as an officer of the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization through which funds were channeled to Small Business Hawaii (later known as Smart Business Hawaii), the group headed by Slom.”
The story recounts the Cayetano and other controversies in Hawaii and alleges that Zimmerman once contacted Lind “about what she believed was a Democratic conspiracy to control the outcome of the 1998 election. At the time, I was on the staff of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.”
He wrote, “She came armed with about 10 pages of notes compiled by Republican election observers at polling places in different parts of the state. She believed these showed a broad effort by the dominant Democrats to disrupt voting in their favor. However, when I reviewed the notes, they appeared to reflect the normal problems encountered when conducting statewide elections with a largely volunteer force earning a small stipend for working at the polls.”