Did National Enquirer Extort Jeff Bezos?

In an incredible disclosure, the Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post Jeff Bezos has released what he says was communications from the National Enquirer that sought to blackmail him into dropping an investigation into the tabloid’s motivations in targeting Bezos, a long target of President Donald Trump. The tabloid is of course owned by close Trump friend David Pecker, who is viewed by many as a thoroughly disreputable businessman. On this occasion, however, Bezos says that he has something that has long been missing: an actual letter laying out the alleged extortive pitch. In the middle of this sordid mess is an American Media, Inc. (AMI) attorney named Jon Fine, who identifies himself as the Associate General Counsel. The role of an attorney in such a matter could raise very serious bar and ethical concerns.

Bezos has been embroiled in an embarrassing divorce controversy where his affair with entertainment personality Lauren Sanchez has become public knowledge with the publication of cringeworthy pictures and messages.

Bezos hired investigators to look into the release of the private information. In the meantime, he alleges that he received emails from attorneys representing AMI on Thursday evening threatening him that if he did not stop an investigation into the National Enquirer, the tabloid would release more damaging photos. In a commendable move, Bezos refused to be blackmailed. In a Medium post under the title, “No thank you, Mr. Pecker,” Bezos disclosed everything and may have triggered a serious scandal touching on both legal and media circles.

In January, the National Enquirer published a story detailing an alleged affair between the billionaire and entertainment personality Lauren Sanchez, publishing pictures and text messages between the couple. Bezos funded an immediate investigation into “how those texts were obtained, and to determine the motives for the many unusual actions taken by the Enquirer.” The obvious suggestion is that Pecker and his organization was again mixing its media assets with political motives.

One would have thought that the last thing any rational person would do is to send a threatening letter suggesting a quid pro quo. Yet, in an email on Feb. 5, 2019, Deputy General Counsel Jon Fine warns Bezos about “continuing defamatory activities.” It was an empty threat. However, then came the kicker: “Absent the immediate cessation of the defamatory conduct, we will have no choice but to pursue all remedies available under applicable law. That said, if your client agrees to cease and desist such defamatory behavior, we are willing to engage in constructive conversations regarding the texts and photos which we have in our possession.”

That sounds a lot like the threat to release damaging pictures unless Bezos pulled back the Washington Post or investigators from digging further into the motivations of the National Enquirer conduct. There is also a suggestion left by Bezos’ statement that the effort by the National Enquirer could be due to the coverage of the Post regarding Saudi Arabia.

Let’s stop here for a moment. The response of Bezos itself raises some concerns in the investigation of a publication. Moreover, the Post itself is in a problematic position in covering a scandal involving its own owner. The fact is that the coverage of Bezos is exactly what the National Enquirer does. He is a celebrity and the tabloid runs sensational stories about celebrities. This is a grocery store tabloid that traffics in gossip. There is nothing particularly atypical or unpredictable in running this story. The Post published a story about the leaked texts under the headline, “Was tabloid exposé of Bezos affair just juicy gossip or a political hit job?”

What is highly unusual and untoward are the emails sent by Fine. If the first email was reckless, the second email on Feb. 6th was pure insanity. Fine demanded that Bezos publicly reject the Post’s coverage and announce “that they have no knowledge of basis for suggesting that American Media Inc.’s coverage was politically motivated of influencer by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility.” Then came the quid pro quo: “AM agrees not to publish, distribute, share or describe unpublished texts and photos.”

There is no question that the threat violates core journalistic principles, but AMI and the National Enquirer have never been particular concern with such professional rules. Pecker himself is a much reviled figure for his sleazy conduct. The legal ethical question could be more debatable, but there are good-faith objections that could be raised over the involvement of Fine and other lawyers.

Fine seems utterly clueless or careless in making such a threat. He is seeking to influence coverage of his client by threatening the release of embarrassing material against the owner of a media company. This follows the disgraceful role played by Pecker and AMI in serving as a conduit for hush money to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to help President Trump. AMI secured immunity in exchange for cooperating with the Mueller investigation. In that scandal, reporter Ronan Farrow also accused AMI of threatening to “ruin” him if he continued his efforts to uncover the truth about Pecker and AMI.

Bezos lowered the boom in his posting that began:

“Something unusual happened to me yesterday. Actually, for me it wasn’t just unusual — it was a first. I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Or at least that’s what the top people at the National Enquirer thought. I’m glad they thought that, because it emboldened them to put it all in writing. Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.”

Subject to a cooperating argument with the Special Counsel over his use of AMI to protect Trump from scandal, it could prove highly problematic for Pecker to be continuing such work against one of Trump’s critics while working with the Special Counsel.

In one communication from Chief Content Officer for AMI Dylan Howard, counsel for Bezos’ investigator is giving the following list of possible images that could be posted if Bezos does not do what AMI demands:

However, in the interests of expediating this situation, and with The Washington Post poised to publish unsubstantiated rumors of The National Enquirer’s initial report, I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our newsgathering.

In addition to the “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick’” — The Enquirer obtained a further nine images. These include:

· Mr. Bezos face selfie at what appears to be a business meeting.

· Ms. Sanchez response — a photograph of her smoking a cigar in what appears to be a simulated oral sex scene.

· A shirtless Mr. Bezos holding his phone in his left hand — while wearing his wedding ring. He’s wearing either tight black cargo pants or shorts — and his semi-erect manhood is penetrating the zipper of said garment.

· A full-length body selfie of Mr. Bezos wearing just a pair of tight black boxer-briefs or trunks, with his phone in his left hand — while wearing his wedding ring.

· A selfie of Mr. Bezos fully clothed.

· A full-length scantily-clad body shot with short trunks.

· A naked selfie in a bathroom — while wearing his wedding ring. Mr. Bezos is wearing nothing but a white towel — and the top of his pubic region can be seen.

· Ms. Sanchez wearing a plunging red neckline dress revealing her cleavage and a glimpse of her nether region.

· Ms. Sanchez wearing a two-piece red bikini with gold detail dress revealing her cleavage.

It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail — and quickly.

Dylan.

What is particularly concerning is the involvement of an attorney in this sordid affair. Fine offers a quid pro quo:

2. A public, mutually-agreed upon acknowledgment from the Bezos Parties, released through a mutually-agreeable news outlet, affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility.

3. AM agrees not to publish, distribute, share, or describe unpublished texts and photos (the “Unpublished Materials”).

It is not clear if this constitutes a federal crime but an argument could be made that it is blackmail or extortion. Under 18 U.S.C. §873:

“Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”

Moreover, there are serious ethical rules that could apply to a review of the conduct of attorneys like Fine. Fine was only recently given his position at AMI. A graduate of the University of Virginia, he previously worked at Open Road Integrated Media Inc. It is not clear where he is a bar member. The common rule of professional conduct (Rule 8.4) stipulates:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

   (a) Violate or attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another;
   (b) Commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects;
   (c) Engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation;
   (d) Engage in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice;
   (e) State or imply an ability to influence improperly a government agency or official;
   (f) Knowingly assist a judge or judicial officer in conduct that is a violation of applicable rules of judicial conduct or other law; or
   (g) Seek or threaten to seek criminal charges or disciplinary charges solely to obtain an advantage in a civil matter.

Fine could portray this as simply a fight between two organizations. He could argue that he was merely being open about a common understanding between media organizations to reach a type of truce. He was neither hiding nor misleading in his intentions. Moreover, he could note that Bezos was using his organization to trash AMI and he was seeking to end the mutually destructive conflict.

Yet, Fine is clearly threatening to embarrass Bezos unless he did something of value for AMI and Pecker (in clearly them from any improper conduct). Since Pecker and AMI targeting a Trump critic could be raised in conjunction with his criminal cooperation agreement, there is a motivation that could be raised outside of the embarrassment of the coverage. If Pecker and AMI are still working to advance the interests of Trump, Mueller might reconsider his past statements as well as his cooperation.

The problem is who will investigate this sordid affair. Unless Mueller is willing to investigate his own cooperating witness, the other possibilities be Congress or the bar. What is clear is that someone needs to investigate.

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