U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Freelance journalist subpoenaed for testimony in defamation suit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 11, 2020

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
May 11, 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.

Cassandra Fairbanks | Freelance reporter

Fairbanks wrote multiple articles about Aaron Rich and the possible “WikiLeaks connection” for Big League Politics in 2017. She was also subpoenaed in January 2020 in a related defamation lawsuit brought by Butowsky against NPR, a case the Tracker documented here.

  • Aug. 18, 2019: Couch lists Fairbanks in his initial disclosure statement as someone who is likely to have discoverable information, alleging she “has knowledge about statements made by Julian Assange relevant to the leaking of DNC, Clinton campaign and/or [Clinton campaign chair] John Podesta-related emails and attachments.”
  • Oct. 14, 2019: Rich notifies the court of his intention to depose Fairbanks, along with Fox News reporters Malia Zimmerman and Ellen Ratner.
  • April 23, 2020: District Judge Richard Leon approves the defendants’ request to depose Fairbanks. Leon also approves Rich’s attorney’s request to cross-notice Fairbanks — functionally extending the length of the deposition to allow both the plaintiff and the defendants the opportunity to question the witness without limitation on subject matter.
  • May 12, 2020: Couch and Butowsky notify the court that — after multiple failed attempts — they were able to successfully serve Fairbanks the deposition subpoena, which orders her to appear to testify on June 17 at 9:30 a.m.

Status of Subpoena

  • With the case closed, any outstanding subpoenas would become moot. Neither Fairbanks nor her attorneys responded to the Tracker’s requests for comment, and it is unclear from the court filings alone whether her deposition was completed. Therefore, the Tracker is listing the status of the subpoena as “unknown” until further information is available.

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