When Jeff Bezos published correspondence between his lawyers and the legal team at National Enquirer owner American Media International - exposing the tabloid for purportedly trying to blackmail him with "dick picks" unless he dropped an investigation into the Inquirer's reporting - he might have had an another motive beyond standing up for all of those who have been bullied by AMI.
According to Bloomberg, by exposing the correspondence, legal experts believe Bezos may have been trying to trash AMI's deal with federal prosecutors made in exchange for the company's - and that of its CEO, David Pecker - cooperation against the Trump Administration.
Legal experts told BBG that the AMI's tactics amounted to "textbook extortion". And if prosecutors agree, the company could be prosecuted for its role in the "Catch and Kill" tactics used to suppress a story about a former Playboy model with whom President Trump allegedly had an affair. According to the plea agreement, the company agreed not to commit any crimes for three years.
Under the Sept. 20 agreement, the tabloid publisher was supposed to refrain from all illegal activity for a three-year period. The agreement says that if New York-based AMI commits any crime, it can be prosecuted for the ones it was granted immunity against, including perjury and obstruction of justice.
The disclosure Thursday by Amazon.com Inc.’s chief executive officer that AMI threatened to publish revealing photos of him unless he halted an investigation into whether an earlier expose of his relationship with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez was politically motivated is “textbook extortion” and could lead to criminal prosecution, according to some legal experts.
New York law explicitly makes it a crime to threaten to expose a secret or publicize material that will expose someone to “contempt or ridicule,” said Zachary Elsea, a litigator with Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP in Santa Monica, California. The emails from AMI that Bezos posted explicitly threaten to embarrass him, according to Elsea.
"This could be construed as criminal conduct," Elsea said.
Of course, this type of explicit blackmail isn't that far removed from the "weaponized" journalism tactics employed by the Washington Post. But we digress...
The Enquirer's lawyers threatened to publish lewd images and texts exchanged between Bezos and Sanchez unless the CEO called off his investigation into the tabloid and publicly admitted that the Enquirer's probe into Bezos wasn't politically motivated.
And while the optics certainly aren't great, AMI has teams of lawyers at its disposal, and it's difficult to imagine the company moving ahead with something like this without first considering all legal ramifications. So, it's extremely likely that AMI will be able to defend its behavior. For example, the company might argue that the emails were taken out of context, and that the messages were merely examples of two lawyers trying to resolve a thorny legal dispute.
And while the tabloid could run into trouble if prosecutors determine that it obtained the photos and texts via illegal means, the tabloid has insisted - and most of the reporting on the subject seems to support - the notion that they were leaked to the tabloid by somebody close to Bezos and/or Sanchez.
AMI may defend against any extortion accusations by claiming that the emails are between lawyers who are simply trying to resolve a dispute, with AMI offering a compromise solution, according to Robert Schwartz, an attorney with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP in Los Angeles.
"The Enquirer has a lot of lawyers and wouldn’t do this kind of thing without first talking it through with them," Schwartz said.
The tabloid could run into trouble, however, if it turns out that it illegally obtained the private pictures of Bezos, according to Schwartz.
"There are plenty of prosecutors in New York who don’t feel beholden to the president and who will want to explore any shady behavior by the National Enquirer," Schwartz said.
Whether or not prosecutors decided to act or investigate, as Bezos' investigation soldiers on, we imagine we'll be seeing some less-than-flattering leaks about Pecker and the Enquirer surfacing in the pages of WaPo in the not-too-distant future.