When the National Enquirer’s owner agreed to cooperate in a campaign finance investigation of its payment to a former Playboy model, it obtained an immunity deal that federal prosecutors warned could be voided if the tabloid owner committed any crimes afterward.
Less than five months later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, claimed publicly that American Media Inc. had threatened to publish salacious photos of him and his mistress, Lauren Sanchez, unless he ended an investigation into how the National Enquirer obtained racy, private messages between the two and said publicly the tabloid’s coverage wasn’t politically motivated.
Whether the actions Bezos described constitute either extortion or blackmail under the law will be up to prosecutors to determine. Blackmail typically involves a threat to share embarrassing information, which wouldn’t ordinarily be illegal, in return for money or something else of value, while extortion involves seeking the same end through the threat of an illegal act, often physical violence.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, which reached the immunity agreement with AMI, declined to comment Friday. A spokesman for AMI said the publisher “fervently believes” its actions were legal and said it was in “good faith” negotiations with Bezos at the time he made the claims.
Among the immunity deal’s provisions were requirements that AMI establish written standards for its executives and editorial employees on how federal election laws apply to its business and that it consult with attorneys to ensure payments for stories about anyone running for public office don’t violate those laws.
It was further conditioned on AMI committing “no crimes whatsoever,” a standard feature of such agreements.
“If prosecutors find that this exchange with Jeff Bezos was an additional crime, then they have the right to void the agreement,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice. “Watching your nonprosecution agreement with a cooperating witness fall apart is the last thing you want to see happen, because it creates a giant headache.”
Bezos said Thursday that he’s not only the person to encounter threats from American Media. “Numerous people” contacted his investigators about similar experiences, saying they were forced to give in because their livelihoods were threatened, he wrote. Two journalists, including Ronan Farrow, a contributing writer for the New Yorker, subsequently described similar threats on Twitter.
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