Prosecutors probing ‘Enquirer’ after Bezos report

PLAYING DIRTY?:An e-mail exchange with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos could contravene a deal American Media made last year to avoid prosecution for alleged campaign finance breaches

AP, NEW YORK

Sun, Feb 10, 2019 - Page 4

Federal prosecutors in New York City are probing whether the National Enquirer’s parent company breached a cooperation agreement in its handling of the story regarding Amazon.com chief executive officer Jeff Bezos.

Bezos said American Media (AMI) threatened to publish intimate photographs of him unless he stopped investigating how the tabloid obtained his private exchanges with his mistress.

Prosecutors are looking at whether an e-mail exchange that Bezos published shows AMI breached an agreement it struck to avoid prosecution for alleged campaign finance contraventions, two people familiar with the matter said on Friday.

The agreement requires that AMI commit no crimes for three years. AMI did not respond to requests for comment.

The clash between the world’s richest man and the US’ most aggressive supermarket tabloid spilled into public view late on Thursday when Bezos accused it of threatening to print photographs of him and the woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair.

He said the Enquirer made two demands: Stop investigating how the publication obtained private messages that Bezos and his girlfriend had exchanged, and publicly declare that the Enquirer’s coverage of Bezos was not politically motivated.

AMI on Friday said that its board of directors ordered a prompt and thorough investigation and would take “whatever appropriate action is necessary.”

Earlier in the day, the company said it “acted lawfully” while reporting the story and engaged in “good-faith negotiations” with Bezos.

The tabloid acknowledged secretly assisting then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign by paying US$150,000 to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump. The company then buried the story until after the 2016 election.

Although federal prosecutors considered the payment an illegal corporate contribution to Trump’s campaign, AMI in September last year reached an agreement with authorities that spared it from prosecution.

It promised in the agreement not to break any laws. The deal also required the continuing cooperation of top AMI executives, including chief executive officer David Pecker and Enquirer editor Dylan Howard.

A breach of the agreement could lead to criminal charges over the McDougal payments, and the resulting court proceedings could lay bare details of the gossip sheet’s cozy relationship with the president.

The Enquirer and top executives could also be subject to state and federal extortion and coercion charges, and prosecution under New York City’s revenge porn law, passed last year, which bans even the threat of sharing intimate photographs, legal experts said.

The US attorney’s office in Manhattan declined to comment.

Carrie Goldberg, a Brooklyn lawyer representing revenge-porn and sex-crime victims, said Bezos’ account laid out a clear case of criminal coercion.

The Enquirer has “weaponized journalism and made it into this bartering, brokering thing where it’s like: ‘If I can blackmail you with the threat — I’ll expose this unless you’ve got something better,’” Goldberg said.