America First Media Group founder ordered to comply with document, testimony requests

July 31, 2019

In the early hours of July 10, 2016, Seth Rich, a 27-year-old staffer with the Democratic National Committee, was fatally shot while walking to his home in Washington, D.C. His death, while unsolved, is believed to be the result of a robbery gone wrong. It quickly, however, became a flash point for conspiracy theories: that Rich had been behind a DNC email dump to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, and that he’d effectively been assassinated because of it. None of the claims have ever been substantiated.

On March 26, 2018, Rich’s brother, Aaron, filed a defamation suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against a slew of defendants — Texas businessman and then-frequent Fox News guest Ed Butowsky, the Washington Times, America First Media Group and its founder, Matt Couch — who he’d alleged had shown a “reckless disregard for the truth” and falsely linked both himself and his brother to the email leak.

During the course of three years of litigation, attorneys for both sides collectively subpoenaed nearly a dozen news outlets and members of the press. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents all subpoena requests individually; Find a complete overview of the known subpoenas for this case in the blog post, “Nearly a dozen journalists, outlets and third parties subpoenaed in defamation suit.”

In January 2021, both Couch and Butowsky publicly apologized and retracted prior claims made about the Rich brothers, though Butowsky deleted his statement of contrition almost immediately, according to Law & Crime. Couch and Rich reached a settlement agreement on Jan. 19; Butowsky and Rich reached an agreement on March 22. The lawsuit was terminated officially when District Judge Richard Leon granted Rich’s motions to dismiss the charges against the defendants on March 29. The details of the settlement agreements were not made public.

Matt Couch | America First Media Group founder

Couch published several conspiracy-driven stories about the Riches on AFM’s website and both his personal and the outlet’s social media platforms. He later identified Butowsky as the outlet’s only source for the information it reported.

  • April 23, 2019: As part of the discovery process, Rich serves Couch and AFM with a “Request for Production of Documents,” including communications between Couch and AFM and others mentioned in the complaint, documents supporting or refuting Couch’s allegedly defamatory statements, telephonic records showing the conversations Couch or AFM had made or received relating to the allegations in the complaint, and detailed information about AFM’s corporate formation.
  • June 3, 2019: Rich serves his “First Set of Interrogatories” — a formal set of questions used to determine the facts presented as part of the case — to Couch and AFM.
  • June 23, 2019: Couch responds to the First Set of Interrogatories but not the documents request.
  • July 8, 2019: Rich sends a letter to Couch’s attorney detailing the deficiencies in the response to the interrogatories and requests that they be resolved by July 18.
  • July 15, 2019: Couch sends a letter to Rich and the court stating that he and AFM had answered the interrogatories to the best of their ability and understanding. As a step toward settling the suit, Couch offers to issue Rich an apology.
  • July 23, 2019: Rich files a motion to compel Couch and AFM to comply with their discovery obligations.
  • July 31, 2019: District Judge Richard Leon orders Couch and AFM to produce documents in response to the documents request.
  • Aug. 14, 2019: Couch files a motion for the court to reconsider the motion to compel, arguing that the court ruled without allowing him sufficient time to respond to the motion.
  • Aug. 26, 2019: Couch produces 50 documents, including a handful of emails between himself and Butowsky, whom he has identified as his primary source for his statements about Aaron Rich and WikiLeaks.
  • Oct. 25, 2019: Couch invokes reporter’s privilege for the first time, informing Rich and the court that he intends to withhold “various items.”
  • Nov. 21, 2019: Couch formally asserts reporter’s privilege in his refusal to disclose communications with one particular source.
  • Dec. 6, 2019: Couch states that he refuses to turn over documents, including audio and video files, related to communications with Butowsky and at least three additional sources, citing reporter’s privilege.
  • Dec. 12, 2019: Couch appears for a deposition wherein he refuses to answer nearly 70 questions posed by Rich’s attorneys.
  • Jan. 3, 2020: Rich moves to enforce the court’s order requiring Couch to produce documents.
  • Jan. 17, 2020: Couch files a motion in opposition.
  • Jan. 24, 2020: Judge Leon once again orders Couch to turn over documents — including those withheld on the basis of his claims of reporter’s privilege — by Jan. 31. Leon also orders Couch to choose between sitting for three and a half additional hours of deposition testimony or reaching an agreement with Rich about the issues raised but not answered during his prior deposition.
  • Jan. 31, 2020: Couch files a motion for reconsideration of the court’s ruling that he turn over documents, arguing that they are protected by reporter’s privilege.
  • Feb. 5, 2020: Leon denies Couch’s motion for reconsideration and orders him to produce the relevant documents within 72 hours or possibly be held in contempt.
  • Feb. 18, 2020: Rich informs the court that Couch is continuing to withhold information that Leon had ordered him to produce.
  • March 3, 2020: Rich files another motion to compel Couch to produce relevant documents from Flock, “a multi-party messaging platform that he has used for communications relevant to this case.”
  • March 4, 2020: Leon rules that Couch’s assertion of reporter’s privilege is without merit, noting that even assuming Couch had not waived that qualified privilege by failing to assert it for months of discovery and had proved that it applies to him, it does not apply, as the information sought goes to the heart of Rich’s allegations and the defendants’ defenses. Leon rules that Couch must produce the withheld information within 48 hours; should he fail to do so, Leon warns that Couch will be held in contempt and fined $2,500 each day he fails to provide the information.
  • April 23, 2020: Leon rules that Rich is permitted to complete Couch’s second deposition.
  • Jan. 14, 2021: Couch posts an apology and retraction on his website and social media, writing, “Our reports about Aaron Rich were largely driven by information given to us by a single source, who we now believe provided us with false information and who, as of this date, has retracted his statements. Today, we retract and disavow our statements, and we offer our apology to Mr. Rich and his family.”
  • Jan. 19, 2021: Rich reaches a settlement with Couch and AFM and asks the court to dismiss the charges; Rich continues his case against Butowsky.

Status of Subpoena

  • Carried out.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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