National Enquirer to investigate Jeff Bezos’ blackmail claim

Updated February 8, 2019 - 7:02 pm

WASHINGTON — The National Enquirer’s parent company said Friday that it will investigate Jeff Bezos’ claim that the magazine tried to blackmail him.

American Media Inc., the tabloid’s parent company, said in a statement that its attorneys were “acting lawfully” and engaging in “good faith negotiations” with lawyers associated with Bezos, the richest man in the world, founder of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post.

“Upon completion of that investigation, the Board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary,” AMI said.

As news organizations report that federal authorities are looking into Bezos’ allegations, legal observers are wondering if the imbroglio will kill an agreement with New York federal prosecutors not to prosecute the tabloid or editor David Pecker, a long-time friend of President Donald Trump, for tax or campaign-finance violations.

On Thursday, Bezos went on the online platform Medium to accuse the Enquirer of dangling compromising photos in an attempt to blackmail him. Rather than accede, Bezos defiantly posted emails in which the tabloid’s lawyers informed his representatives that the scandal rag had obtained incriminating “selfies” of Bezos and his reputed mistress, Lauren Sanchez.

Bezos said he went public because, “Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position, I can’t stand up for this kind of extortion, how many people can?”

An Enquirer story on the married billionaire and married Sanchez already had led to the January announcement that Bezos and his wife MacKenzie were getting a divorce.

The Enquirer apparently had more dirt on the billionaire. In one letter, an AMI attorney offered “not to publish, distribute, share, or describe unpublished texts and photos.” In return, Bezos would be expected to end an investigation into AMI’s practices and issue a statement asserting that he had no knowledge that the tabloid’s stories on Bezos were politically motivated.

In September, AMI signed a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York after the company stipulated it paid $150,000 to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal to ensure she “did not publicize damaging allegations about” a candidate in the 2016 election. The agreement cited Enquirer editor Pecker by name.

Prosecutors have argued that because the payments were made to keep the women’s claims out of the news during the 2016 campaign, the hush money constituted an illegal campaign contribution.

With his post Thursday, Bezos became an instant hero on social media. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called him “a profile in moral courage.”

Former Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich tweeted that the U.S. Attorney’s office should “nullify AMI and Pecker’s non-prosecution agreement and prosecute them for extortion and their campaign finance related crimes.”

Former Nevada U.S. Attorney Gregory Brower told the Review-Journal that it is a federal crime “to demand something of value from someone with a threat to injure their reputation.”

But federal-prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Richard Serafini wasn’t sure prosecutors would see this as a winnable case, when AMI could argue the emails were part of a negotiation.

“Virtually every lawsuit has a person, the defendant, who stands to be embarrassed” and pushes for a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for a cash payment, Serafini said.

Bezos also claimed that Pecker and AMI have been investigated for “actions taken on behalf of the Saudi government.” He quoted a 2018 New York Times story that reported that Trump rewarded “Pecker’s loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia.”

Friday morning Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters he was “not sure” if Trump was aware of the Bezos charge. While Trump has mocked Bezos as “Jeff Bozo” on Twitter, his Friday Twitter feed did not address the controversy.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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