Jeff Bezos’ decision to publicly call out American Media Inc. for an attempt this week at “extortion and blackmail” could have consequences far beyond what the publisher planned.
AMI, owned by David Pecker and best known as the publisher of tabloid The National Enquirer, only a few months ago signed a non-prosecution deal with the Department of Justice, agreeing that for its continued cooperation in an investigation into $275,000 that AMI paid to women with lascivious accusations involving Donald Trump during his presidential campaign in order to kill their stories, it will not be prosecuted for its own wrongdoing. AMI has so far admitted to making the payments at the behest of members of the Trump campaign, so the investigation revolves mainly around the question of whether such payments count as an illegal campaign contribution.
While the agreement includes some broad language from the DOJ and the U.S. attorneys involved in the investigation — which is taking place in New York — that protects AMI from prosecution, it includes a section making clear that “any crimes” the publisher commits after signing the deal can negate the agreement entirely.
From the agreement, signed by AMI’s counsel in September: “It is understood that, should AMI commit any crimes subsequent to the date of signing this agreement, or should the government determine that AMI or its representatives have knowingly given false, incomplete or misleading testimony or information, or should AMI otherwise violate any provision of this agreement, AMI shall thereafter be subject to prosecution for any federal criminal violation of which this office has knowledge.”
A representative of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in New York could not be reached for comment.
Under federal law, extortion is a crime and defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “obtaining property from another induced by wrongful use of an actual or threatened force, violence or fear.” Blackmail is essentially synonymous with extortion, but its definition includes the threat “to expose disgraceful acts.” Both can be committed virtually, say, over e-mail, a few of which Bezos made sure to include in his Thursday evening post to Medium. One legal quibble may be that federal extortion/blackmail typically requires a demand for some kind of property, but both generally explain a situation where one party uses threats to leverage another party for its own gain.
In its first statement on Bezos’ claims, AMI wrote that it “believes fervently that it acted lawfully” in “reporting” around him and his affair.
“Further, at the time of the recent allegations made by Mr. Bezos, it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him,” AMI added. “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.”
But boy, does it seem like AMI tried to get some leverage over on Bezos. The Amazon founder and chief executive officer and, since 2015, owner of The Washington Post wrote on Medium that AMI over the last week attempted to use as a bargaining chip intimate photos of Bezos (who is married but now separated) and his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez, which they exchanged over text message. Bezos had hired a private investigator to try to find out how The Enquirer got access to those text messages, something that he claimed made Pecker “apoplectic.”
AMI, according to e-mails from the last week, wanted Bezos to publicly acknowledge in a “mutually agreeable news outlet” that The Washington Post had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces,” a reference to stories the Post has published on AMI’s Trump campaign payouts and the publisher’s possible link to the Saudi government — including last year’s publication of a strange pro-Saudi tabloid. AMI also asked Bezos for “an agreement that [Bezos parties] will cease referring” to the possibility that certain of AMI’s actions were indeed politically motivated.
In exchange for such an agreement and public concession, AMI said it would not “publish, distribute, share, or describe unpublished texts and photos” that it had collected in its “news-gathering and reporting.” Also, the agreement would have to be “completely confidential” and if Bezos went back on it at any time, AMI could do whatever it liked with the photos. Bezos noted, too, that AMI characterized the photos as something that could damage Amazon, because they would show shareholders his “poor business judgment.”
In simpler terms, AMI tried to use private photos of Bezos and veiled threats to his business in order to have him publicly state — and keep secret the motivation for his statement — that reporting around AMI’s politically motivated actions, even by his own publication, were simply wrong.
All of this is further muddied by the fact that Pecker is a well-known friend of Trump’s, who has been openly hostile toward Bezos, Amazon and the Post.
Amazon shareholders don’t seem too worried — the company’s stock was down a reasonable 1 percent to $1,589 per share in pre-market trading and it still has a market capitalization of nearly $800 billion. But AMI and Pecker may need to start worrying about the agreement with the DOJ.
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