The Man Behind The Scenes In Fox News' Discredited Seth Rich Story
Until now, Ed Butowsky has enjoyed edging close to the limelight — an investment adviser who has pursued celebrity clients, his profile burnished through appearances on Fox News and its sister channel Fox Business Network.
Butowsky, a 55-year-old former Morgan Stanley executive, has been celebrated in glossy magazines, touted for his financial acumen, toasted for his proximity to the powerful.
In recent weeks, however, Butowsky has received unwanted scrutiny.
In a May 16 story that has since been discredited, Fox News breathed new life into conspiracy theories making the rounds in conservative circles about the murder last year of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old aide to the Democratic National Committee. Fox reported that Rich's computer had been linked to leaks of Democratic Party officials' emails to WikiLeaks and that his death might be connected to those leaks. Fox also reported there might have been a cover-up.
Butowsky had hovered behind the scenes of the story — an unnamed "third party," as he was described by Fox's Sean Hannity later that night.
A federal lawsuit now accuses Butowsky, a Fox News reporter and the network of concocting the story about Rich's death in an effort to help the president. Butowsky even briefed a White House official about what they had found.
Taped conversations obtained by NPR capture Butowsky stressing the importance of knocking down suspicions that the Russians had a hand in President Trump's election.
In a wide-ranging interview with NPR lasting more than 2 1/2 hours, however, Butowsky denies having any agenda and rejects the lawsuit's allegations. He says he only wanted to aid others, especially Rich's family.
"I can't tell you how much time I spend helping people's lives and making them better," Butowsky says. For himself, he says, he has a simple imperative: "I want to take care of my family. I want air conditioning, sofa, Wi-Fi and DirectTV. That's what I want in life."
A closer look at the record suggests a more complicated picture.
Ed Butowsky is a former senior vice president at Morgan Stanley who set up a financial advice business, Chapwood Capital Investment Management, based outside Dallas.
He has enjoyed establishing a rapport with professional athletes, counseling them on ways to avoid financial woes and sometimes entering into partnerships, as he did with former baseball star Torii Hunter.
Butowsky was featured prominently in a Sports Illustrated cover story and an ESPN documentary on athletes going broke. He even participated in a Web-only financial reality show called The Invested Life, produced for MSN, in which he counseled people on their finances over tennis and golf by making sweeping comparisons to the sport they were playing.
Butowsky also has been a vocal supporter of President Trump, on Fox, on conservative talk radio and in Breitbart News, among other outlets, largely for Trump's stance on regulations and finance.
As former White House press secretary Sean Spicer told NPR in late July, Butowsky has been a reliable public voice on economic matters for Republicans, or a "surrogate," for the past seven years.
Given his profile, Butowsky has given only a relatively small number of political contributions, mostly to Republicans, though one was to Barack Obama, and he says he is not a major player. "The idea that I'm some political activist is the strangest thing," Butowsky says.
Even so, last summer Butowsky posted on Facebook photos of himself at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland sitting next to two of the Republican Party's most important donors, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, in the Adelsons' suite. He posted additional pictures of Trump coming into the suite to greet supporters.
Butowsky held front-row seats on the Capitol grounds for Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, surrounded by some journalists and other guests. Once a year, he says, he does interviews for a talk radio service, which secures him press credentials giving him access on Capitol Hill. Along with his appearances on Fox and Fox Business, he has contributed occasional online commentaries for Fox and articles to Breitbart News; in the past, Butowsky has also called the site's former executive chairman a friend. That's Steve Bannon, Trump's chief political strategist.
All of this serves as a backdrop to the claims Fox News and Butowsky made over the Seth Rich story.
Butowsky says he stumbled upon it by accident late last year, when a friend told him that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had confided that Rich had been the source of the thousands of emails the site posted. Publicly, Assange suggested Rich's death was linked to the emails and offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of his killer. Officials at Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department said they believed his shooting was the result of a botched armed robbery. A spokeswoman for the force reiterates that conclusion to NPR now.
Butowsky says he reached out to Rich's parents, who live in Omaha, Neb., to share this development of what his friend had been told.
"I didn't know anything about Seth Rich," Butowsky tells NPR. "I didn't know anything whatsoever. In fact, when I told Mr. and Mrs. Rich, I thought I was actually helping a family learn something."
By Butowsky's account, they speak in December and he offers to pay for a private investigator when they express frustration over progress in the investigation. (Joel and Mary Rich declined, through a spokesman, to comment on their interactions with Butowsky.) Butowsky says they don't accept his offer.
Butowsky follows the lead, speaks five days after Trump's inauguration with the legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh by phone. Butowsky says he doesn't know who Hersh is and records the conversation, which he later shares with others. And the audio recording obtained by NPR shows Hersh referring to an insider source who describes an FBI report reflecting that Rich had leaked information to WikiLeaks.
The tape shows Butowsky is eager to leverage information to knock down suspicions about ties between the Russians and Trump's circle. "The most important thing is this: ... So many people throughout Trump's four years, maybe eight years, are always going to fall back on the idea that he's not legitimate, and the Russians got him elected," Butowsky says to Hersh. "This changes all of that."
Butowsky tells Hersh he will be able to resolve the question of Rich's death for his parents. "And, second, we solve the problem about Russians are the ones that gave the emails," Butowsky says, "because that did not happen."
Hersh warns Butowsky against believing anything Assange might say. You can hear Hersh also give this caution to Butowsky at the end: "It doesn't make it true. It doesn't make it true." Hersh tells NPR he meant that the report might be wrong or might not exist at all.
In an interview with NPR, Hersh says he is skeptical of the official account by intelligence officials that the Russians hacked the DNC. But Hersh now says he was fishing for information from Butowsky. "I did not talk to anybody at the FBI — not about this," Hersh tells NPR. "Nothing is certain until it's proved. And I didn't publish any story on this."
Butowsky nonetheless forwards the tape of his talk with Hersh to the Riches. They say they accept his offer to pay for a private eye, which Butowsky says surprises him. And that sets off a flurry of activity.
Email exchanges shared with NPR show that Butowsky canvasses friends and associates, including people with ties to Fox News, for suggestions. He ultimately zeroes in Rod Wheeler — a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective who has been a paid Fox News contributor since 2005. He introduces Wheeler to Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, but, according to the lawsuit, cautions Wheeler not to mention her involvement to the Riches.
Over the course of this spring, the three major figures in the Rich story — Butowsky, Wheeler and Zimmerman — confer repeatedly, as Butowsky acknowledges. (Many of the exchanges are documented in Wheeler's lawsuit.)
Butowsky says he was trying to help the Riches learn about their son's fate and help Wheeler win paying gigs.
By Butowsky's account, Wheeler is eager for his help to get a job with the Trump administration, preferably with the Justice Department. On April 19, Wheeler is set to meet at the Justice Department with its chief spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores. In an email, Butowsky asks Wheeler to send his regards — that he knows her well.
In an email, Flores tells NPR she has not communicated with Butowsky all year.
"In early April, I and other members of my staff met with Mr. Wheeler, as we do often with political commentators, to discuss the Department's views on law enforcement issues," Flores writes. "In this case, we had seen him discussing his views of the Baltimore consent decree as a former police officer on television earlier that week."
The next day, Butowsky takes Wheeler over to the White House to meet with Spicer. They inform Spicer about their progress in the Rich case. Butowsky says it was very short — that the briefing about the murder investigation was incidental, and that the meeting was intended to give Wheeler face time with an influential White House official to help his job prospects. Most of the conversation lingered on where to buy suits. For his part, Spicer says the meeting lasted perhaps 10 to 15 minutes. The idea of a job never comes up, according to Spicer. A lawyer for Wheeler, Michael Willemin of Wigdor LLP, says Wheeler was never seeking help for a job.
As the weeks unfold, Butowsky continues in a rolling conversation with the other two, by his account and transcripts of emails, texts and phone calls contained in Wheeler's suit. (Fox News declined to comment for this story and also declined to allow Zimmerman to comment, citing Wheeler's suit against the network, its parent company, the reporter and Butowsky.)
"There's many calls I was on with Malia and Rod," Butowsky says. "Rod would call me all the time."
In the days before the Fox News story is broadcast, according to the lawsuit, Butowsky coaches Wheeler and Fox News hosts on how to frame the story: It undercuts the question of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.
The story that comes out, first in a revealing tease by a local Fox-owned station in Washington, D.C., then on Fox's website, and then on Fox's most popular shows, directly connects Rich to the leak of thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks. And it strongly suggests a cover-up.
The Riches publicly denounce the story. Law enforcement officials challenge its conclusions. Wheeler says the quotations attributed to him in Zimmerman's digital piece were fabricated.
In a taped three-way conversation obtained by NPR, Zimmerman appears to acknowledge that Wheeler didn't say remarks attributed to him. For his part, Butowsky can be heard trying to reassure Wheeler: "One day you're going to win an award for having said those things you didn't say." Both exchanges are also cited in Wheeler's lawsuit. Butowsky tells NPR he doesn't believe he said that; it is the one captured statement that he has explicitly challenged.
Fox News retracts the story after a week of pressure, both outside and inside the network. Wheeler sues Fox, Zimmerman and Butowsky for defamation, saying they unfairly defended Fox's reporting on the basis of his quotations.
Asked why he played such a key role in the story, Butowsky appears baffled.
"As I look back, I didn't do anything," he tells NPR. "If you think about it, what did I do? Nothing."
In many ways, Butowsky appears to be an amiable figure in the greater Dallas landscape, brimming with bonhomie, according to people who have encountered him there. He has helped to raise money for juvenile diabetes benefits locally and served with his wife as a major fundraiser for his children's private school.
There are episodes in Butowsky's record that raise questions, however.
Take his educational background. On profiles on Wikipedia and Bloomberg's executive profiles, he is listed as having received a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas. In the MSN Web reality series The Invested Life, Butowsky says, "I went to school at Texas and I continued at Wharton," while a picture flashes on-screen of a younger Butowsky in cap and gown. On his LinkedIn page, Butowsky lists Texas, Ithaca College and Wharton under his education.
A 2008 article in the glossy metropolitan publication D magazine bears a headline calling him " Dallas' $3 Billion Money Manager" and refers to his having a degree from Wharton.
All three institutions say he was present on their campuses.
But NPR did not find evidence that Butowsky has a degree from any of the three schools.
Ithaca College in upstate New York says he attended from 1980 to 1983. A spokeswoman for the University of Texas, Austin's business school tells NPR it has records of him attending as an undergraduate from spring 1982 to summer of 1985, but no records that he graduated. And a spokesman for the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business wrote in an email, "Mr. Butowsky attended a non-credit Executive Education Program in 1997. According to the Penn Registrar he was not part of any Penn degree program."
As for that $3 billion in D magazine's headline? According to the latest industry disclosure forms, Butowsky's firm manages $244 million in investments for 396 clients.
Butowsky says D magazine was mistaken. The magazine's reporter must have confused the figure with how much money he had under his management earlier in his career. And the question of Wharton, as well. "He got a lot of things wrong," Butowsky says.
Zac Crain, the D magazine senior editor who wrote the story in 2008, says the biographical material came directly from Butowsky — including the amount of money under Chapwood's management and his Wharton degree. Crain's article also says that Butowsky was Morgan Stanley's "No. 1 guy in the nation" for his final five years at the firm. A spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley confirms his years and title there but says she cannot corroborate that characterization.
"I was not as thorough as I could have been," Crain says now.
Asked if Butowsky objected to the incorrect characterization of his firm's size or his educational background, Crain said that he heard praise, not complaints: "He f****** loved it."
On three separate occasions, the investment analyst had federal tax liens filed against him for a total of $494,000. Butowsky tells NPR the lion's share of the liens concerned a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over the tax treatment of options and restricted stock. Butowsky says the most recent one, filed just this year, involved his forgetting to send in a check because he was recovering from hip surgery. He says that lien lasted a day.
In reporting this story, I spoke with Butowsky several times — finally reaching him in an epic conversation on Monday. He says that the backlash over the lawsuit against him and the ensuing news coverage have been accompanied by a real toll on him and his family.
He says that he has received death threats and that his children's car has been vandalized. And he asks me to think of him as a human being.
I tell him, I do. I really do.
And then I ask, what about the toll on the parents of Seth Rich? His father, Joel Rich, had told me that the day Fox News released its now discredited story on their son was "almost as bad for us as when we first learned of Seth's death."
"I'm asking you to recognize in them ... the same sense of frustration and anguish that it sounds like you feel," I tell him. "They feel unfairly maligned that their son has been the source of speculation that they reject. But also they have been, you know, online just viciously characterized."
Butowsky displays no curiosity about the way Fox's reporting and his activities affected the very people he says he sought to help.
"I don't have a clue in the world what anyone has said to them, or about them," Butowsky says, and then urges me to dig deeper.
He says the truth can be found in that discredited Fox News story about their dead son: "Every word."
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