U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Fox News White House correspondent subpoenaed in defamation suit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
November 1, 2019

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
November 1, 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.

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.”
  • Oct. 14, 2019: Rich files a request to depose Ratner, along with Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman and freelance reporter Cassandra Fairbanks.
  • Nov. 1, 2019: District Judge Richard Leon approves Rich’s request.
  • Dec. 17, 2019: Rich serves questions for the Rule 31 deposition of Ratner to Eden Quainton, Butowsky’s attorney. Under Rule 31, written questions are submitted by the issuing party and the opposing party has two weeks to submit “cross-questions.” A designated deposition officer then schedules and takes the deposition. Butowsky did not submit any such questions.
  • Jan. 17, 2020: Ratner complies with and completes the deposition in Ohio, where she resides.

Status of Subpoena

Carried out. Following the completion of the deposition, Butowsky voiced a desire to cross-examine or re-depose Ratner, ultimately filing his own deposition subpoena and a motion to strike the first deposition in its entirety. The Tracker has documented the second subpoena here.

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