U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Fox News White House correspondent receives second subpoena for documents, testimony in defamation case

Incident Details

Date of Incident
April 23, 2020

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
April 23, 2020

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.

Ellen Ratner | Former Fox News White House correspondent

Ratner — who’s late brother, Michael, was one of WikiLeaks’ U.S. lawyers — claimed Assange told her during a three-hour meeting in London that the DNC email dump was executed by an insider, not the Russian government.

  • Aug. 18, 2019: Couch lists Ratner in his initial disclosure statement as someone who is likely to have discoverable information, alleging she “has knowledge of her communications with Julian Assange relating to the leak of DNC emails to Wikileaks by one or more DNC insiders or affiliated persons.”
  • Jan. 17, 2020: Ratner completes a Rule 31 deposition — which refers to a type of deposition that is completed remotely with pre-written questions — at the request of Rich. The details of that deposition subpoena can be found here.
  • Feb. 21, 2020: Butowsky raises for the first time the desire to “do an hour of cross on Ellen Ratner.”
  • Feb. 29, 2020: Butowsky notifies Rich and the court of his desire to serve his own deposition subpoena on Ratner.
  • April 23, 2020: District Judge Richard Leon approves the request by Butowsky’s attorney to subpoena Ratner for documents and a second deposition.
  • May 11, 2020: Butowsky’s attorney notifies the court that he has been unable to serve Ratner with the subpoena by mail and requests that the court grant permission to serve her through less-conventional means, such as social media.
  • Aug. 31, 2020: Ratner files a motion to quash Butowsky’s subpoena for a second deposition and documents. The motion was filed under seal and therefore the Tracker was unable to review it.
  • Sept. 14, 2020: Butowsky files an opposition to the motion to quash and a cross-motion to strike “certain scandalous and impertinent material and the entirety of Ms. Ratner’s Rule 31 Deposition.” The motions were filed under seal and therefore the Tracker was unable to review them.
  • Sept. 29, 2020: Rich files a motion in opposition to Butowsky’s cross-motion.

Status of Subpoena

  • With the case closed, any outstanding subpoenas would become moot. Ratner’s attorneys did not respond to the Tracker’s emailed request for comment, and it is unclear from the court filings, many of which are sealed, whether her second deposition was completed or the subpoena upheld. Therefore, the Tracker is listing the status of the subpoena and deposition as “unknown” until more information is available.

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