With Jeff Bezos accusing American Media Inc. of attempted “extortion and blackmail,” the company’s legal troubles are just beginning.
Federal prosecutors are once again examining the conduct of American Media, or AMI for short, which owns the National Enquirer and other magazines.
Last year AMI, the company’s CEO David Pecker, and chief content officer Dylan Howard struck an immunity deal with federal prosecutors. In exchange, they cooperated in the hush money case that ensnared Michael Cohen and implicated President Trump in campaign finance violations.
The AMI deal contained standard language that said that if the company committed “any crimes” in the future, “AMI shall thereafter be subject to prosecution.”
In other words, the deal would be off.
Now Bezos is alleging that a crime has taken place. In a blockbuster blog post titled “No thank you, Mr. Pecker,” Bezos on Thursday evening accused Pecker of an “extortion and blackmail” attempt. Bezos backed up his “extortion” charge with copies of what he said were multiple emails from American Media.
Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are reviewing the National Enquirer’s handling of their Bezos reporting to determine if the company may have violated last year’s deal, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN on Friday.
A spokesman for Bezos declined to comment on whether he has contacted the FBI or other law enforcement authorities about American Media’s actions.
And American Media did not respond to a request for comment about whether law enforcement has been in touch.
But the company responded to Bezos by saying in a statement on Friday morning that “American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos.”
“Further, at the time of the recent allegations made by Mr. Bezos, it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him,” the company said. “Nonetheless, in light of the nature of the allegations published by Mr. Bezos, the Board has convened and determined that it should promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims. Upon completion of that investigation, the Board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary.”
The company did not immediately elaborate on what the four-man board will be doing. Pecker is one of the board members, so legal analysts expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of the investigation.
The Bezos-Enquirer story is incredibly complicated, but it boils down to this: The Enquirer has embarrassing photos and texts of Bezos and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez. When the Enquirer was about to reveal the existence of the relationship last month, Bezos and his wife, author MacKenzie Bezos, announced that they were divorcing “after a long period of loving exploration and trial separation.”
The Enquirer story hit later that day. Bezos put his security chief Gavin de Becker in charge of an investigation into the leaks. According to Bezos’ account, American Media was so troubled by de Becker’s probe and his public comments about it — and his conclusion that the Enquirer’s coverage was “politically motivated” — that it tried to shut up Bezos and de Becker.
“They said they had more of my text messages and photos that they would publish if we didn’t stop our investigation,” Bezos wrote on Medium. He called this “extortion and blackmail.”
In one of the emails Bezos published, an AMI lawyer proposed that Bezos would disavow any belief that the Enquirer’s coverage was “politically motivated,” and in exchange, AMI would not “publish, distribute, share, or describe unpublished texts and photos.”
Rather than accepting the deal, Bezos went public, making a bet that sunlight is the best disinfectant in a sordid case like this.
“These communications cement AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism,” Bezos wrote.
“Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption. I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”
So now everyone is waiting to see.
Given Pecker’s longtime friendship with President Trump, the Enquirer’s role in “catching and killing” stories to help Trump, and and Bezos’s presence on Trump’s enemies list, many commentators have speculated about a potential Trump connection in this case – but it is just speculation.
Ronan Farrow, one of the reporters who covered the Trump-Enquirer alliance, tweeted on Thursday that he and “at least one other prominent journalist” had been on the receiving end of American Media’s “blackmail efforts.” CNN Business has reached out to AMI for comment regarding Farrow’s claim.
A person familiar with the National Enquirer’s operation told CNN Business that similar accusations of blackmail might come to light.
Meantime, The Enquirer’s website doesn’t say a word about this controversy.
But the allegations are on the front page of every major paper on Friday. The headline in the Bezos-owned Washington Post says “Bezos makes extortion allegation.”
HuffPost and the New York Post had more fun: “Bezos Exposes Pecker.”