Founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, entered the political arena about six years ago with his purchase of The Washington Post.
American Media, Inc. (AMI) is the company that owns The National Enquirer, which is the media outlet that recently revealed Bezos was involved in an extramarital affair. The Enquirer story appeared a day after Bezos announced that he and his wife of 25 years were getting a divorce.
The story exposed Bezos’s affair with Lauren Sanchez, who is a former host of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” News of the affair changed public perception of Bezos, particularly with regard to his image as a CEO.
After suffering some embarrassment as a result of the story, Bezos unveiled a surprising blog post, which accused AMI of extortion. According to Bezos, in an email sent by the company’s lawyer, AMI threatened to publish texts and compromising photographs of Bezos, which included pictures of his male anatomy, if he did not publicly state that the tabloid’s reporting on his affair was not motivated by political concerns. Ironically, the lawyer who wrote the email is a former Amazon employee.
David Pecker is the CEO of AMI, and he is known to be an associate and friend of President Donald Trump. In the aforementioned blog post, Bezos made it a point to mention President Trump and cited ways that the president and Pecker had cooperated in the past.
Apparently, Bezos has been stung by the president’s tweets about his newspaper.
“It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy,” Bezos wrote. “President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets.”
Bezos has now put together a team of prominent lawyers and crisis managers to assist him in his public tug-of-war. The team includes high-profile figures such as Hollywood lawyer Martin Singer, who in 2005 represented Bill Cosby over potential Enquirer articles that detailed sexual assault allegations made against Cosby.
Attorney Jonathan Sherman, who previously represented AMI, is part of Bezos’s team and is with the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner. Partner of the firm David Boies defended Harvey Weinstein against sexual harassment and abuse accusations.
An additional team member is security specialist Gavin de Becker, who worked with public figures such as Olivia Newton-John, Cher, and former President Ronald Reagan.
If the email is taken at face value, it appears as though AMI’s lawyer offered to forego the publishing of material that would be embarrassing to Bezos in exchange for a public statement from Bezos that would benefit AMI. Based on a superficial read, the subject of criminal extortion has been repeatedly featured in media discussions.
Citing anonymous sources, reports have surfaced claiming that federal prosecutors are looking into the extortion claim.
The allegation in question is that AMI, via its lawyer, communicated to Bezos during settlement discussions that it possessed embarrassing texts and photographs, and conveying that if Bezos did not settle with AMI the company intended to go forward and publish the material.
The communication was made by a Deputy General Counsel for AMI and purportedly followed an email from AMI’s Chief Content Officer that had described in detail the texts and photographs.
In analyzing this email, it is important to focus on the context within which both parties are seeking to settle a dispute.
In settlement negotiations, it is common practice for the parties to propose that each side will release the other from any potential claims. This is what was communicated through its legal counsel in the subject email by AMI, along with a proposal that Bezos would agree to tell the public that AMI’s coverage of Bezos was not politically motivated. In return, AMI would agree not to publish the texts and photographs.
Outside of the settlement discussion context, criminal extortion would exist in a case such as this if money was demanded as payment for not making public an embarrassing secret. However, in this instance the key difference revolves around the settlement backdrop.
Why would the two sides be negotiating a settlement? It is clear that Bezos has been raising potential civil legal claims against AMI, while AMI has suggested that Bezos’s Washington Post planned to publish a false news story about AMI.
These cross assertions are arguably the basis for both parties to be pursuing a settlement of their respective claims. A settlement agreement would mutually release the claims of both parties.
Typically such agreements contain non-disclosure provisions stipulating that neither side will disparage the other, particularly when both sides are publishers. The argument of AMI as a criminal extortion defendant would be as follows: the texts and emails in question were an essential part of the settlement negotiations and were necessary to establish an incentive for Bezos to negotiate.
Prosecutors would have an uphill battle in attempting to use these facts as a basis for a criminal extortion case. Additionally, the First Amendment creates further problems for the prosecution, since Bezos is a very well known influential public figure and a power player in Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood.
Since Amazon moved forcefully into the entertainment business, Bezos is often seen at award shows and red carpet events. His life choices can have an on one of the largest companies in the world and one of the most influential news outlets in the nation. Despite its inherent unseemly nature, this story is, in fact, a newsworthy one that most current news outlets would run with if given the opportunity.
Furthermore, in the Michael Cohen case AMI entered into a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, agreeing to cooperate in exchange for not being subjected to prosecution. The agreement was conditioned on the company not getting into trouble legally for a period of three years.
Bezos’s team is well aware that, if it were determined that AMI broke the law, the company would potentially be in violation of the agreement. However, if there is no prosecutable crime, there seemingly would be no impact on the non-prosecution agreement.
Much of the analysis and reporting on the latest chapter in the Bezos saga illustrates the hunger on the part of many in the mainstream press for anything that can be weaponized against the president and used to ratchet down his poll numbers.