MANHATTAN (CN) – In an extraordinary blog post accusing President Donald Trump’s favorite supermarket tabloid of “extortion and blackmail,” Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos expressed his desire to “roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”
One of those repercussions could be the end of a nonprosecution agreement that American Media Inc., the National Enquirer’s parent company, struck with federal prosecutors this past summer.
After admitting that it participated in a “catch-and-kill” conspiracy to influence the 2016 presidential election, AMI avoided prosecution by promising to stay on the right side of the law — a commitment that accusations from the world’s richest man put in jeopardy.
Bezos on Thursday published multiple emails from earlier this week in which AMI executives threaten to release intimate photos of the Amazon CEO and his alleged mistress, Lauren Sanchez, including a “below the belt selfie.”
The exchange followed the National Enquirer’s publication last month of racy text messages between Bezos and Sanchez.
Suspecting that the investigation was politically motivated, Bezos said he hired a private investigator. The emails appear to show AMI executives telling Bezos that the Enquirer would print his “dick pick” [sic] if he did not drop that probe.
With New York federal prosecutors now probing whether those emails constitute a breach of AMI’s nonprosecution deal, former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance said that there would be no shortage of criminal statutes appearing to fit this conduct.
“This set of facts looks like our sort of community understanding of what blackmail and extortion is, trying to get somebody to give you something in exchange for not releasing embarrassing material about them,” said Vance, who teaches at the University of Alabama School of Law after a 25-year stint as the Alabama federal prosecutor.
“There is a big family of extortion-related crimes in the federal system and so, prosecutors will go through each one of those statues systematically to see if they have evidence to establish that AMI has established one of them,” she added.
Vance believed that any breach of AMI’s cooperation agreement would be unlikely to undermine ongoing criminal investigations.
“The downside would all be to AMI,” she said. “They would become subject to prosecution. Perhaps some of their principals would become subject to prosecution if prosecutors chose to do that. They might or might not. In terms of what it would do to prosecutors’ case, one suspects that they have that locked down in grand jury, and it would be very difficult for anyone at AMI to back out of what they said under oath or any physical evidence that they’ve provided.”
The geopolitical fallout of possible prosecution is also an open question.
In his blog post, Bezos said that he had looked into “various actions” AMI’s CEO David Pecker and his company have taken on behalf of the Saudi government.
“Several days ago, an AMI leader advised us that Mr. Pecker is ‘apoplectic about our investigation,” Bezos wrote. “For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve.”
Since the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the paper’s aggressive coverage of his brutal killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has been a public-relations disaster for the Trump administration’s relationship with the kingdom.
Last month, Trump fired off a tweet of gleeful schadenfreude after the Enquirer’s publication of Bezos’ racy texts.
“So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post,” Trump wrote (spelling in original). “Hopefully, the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”
For Vance, the backdrop to this story begs another potential avenue for investigation.
“It seems like the very interesting question that we don’t know the answer to here would be whether AMI was acting on its own or whether David Pecker was having conversations with, taking direction from or working out a plan with other people when he engaged in this activity,” she said.
AMI’s agreement came to light on the day a federal judge sentenced former Trump fixer Michael Cohen to three years in prison for what he described as a “veritable smorgasbord of fraud,” including campaign-finance violations.
As part of its deal, AMI admitted that Pecker had coordinated with Cohen on a $150,000 hush-money payment to a woman claiming to have had an affair with the then-candidate.
“It is understood that, should AMI commit any crimes subsequent to the date of signing of 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, including perjury and obstruction of justice,” their 3-page deal states.
Analyzing this language, former Southern District prosecutor Harry Sandick found plenty of criminal exposure for AMI.
“If the government concludes that AMI broke the agreement, they could be prosecuted for the same campaign finance crimes that Cohen has been convicted of, as well as anything else, and that they’re free to use any of the statements made by AMI in their course of their cooperation,” Sandick said in a phone interview.
“So, it’s a serious matter, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that the board of AMI has called for their own investigation,” added Sandick, who is now a criminal defense attorney for the firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in Manhattan.
AMI announced its internal probe in a statement this morning defending the company’s conduct.
“American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos,” the statement asserts, depicting the emails as “good faith negotiations.”
Sandick did not see a strong First Amendment defense for the tabloid.
“I’m not a journalistic ethics expert, but it doesn’t look to me like journalism,” he said. “Journalism is, you know, you have a story, you run it. It’s not like, you have a story, and you call the subject and say, ‘Well, if you do me a favor, I won’t run it.’ That seems like the opposite of journalism.”
Describing his pride in owning the Washington Post, Bezos called the pressure he faced in that position a “complexifier” – a neologism that he made famous by coining it in his viral blog post published in Medium.
For Sandick, prosecutors might find what Bezos wrought to be a complexifier of its own.
“Think about Paul Manafort,” Sandick said, referring to Trump’s former campaign manager. “He made himself a damaged witness by telling what the government thought were intentional lies.”
According to a redacted transcript released today, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors believe Manafort “changed his story completely” to protect Konstantin Kilimnik, who has with suspected ties to Russian intelligence agencies.
It remains unknown what will become of either Manafort or AMI’s agreements.
As for the AMI deal, Sandick warned: “To the extent that they require that cooperation to convict other people, that will impair the government’s investigation.”