LOS ANGELES - Jeff Bezos's allegations that he was blackmailed by American Media Inc. could upend the non-prosecution agreement the publisher of the National Enquirer struck last year with federal prosecutors in New York over its illegal aid to the Trump campaign.
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.
A spokesman for AMI didn't respond to a request for comment. Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, had no comment.
The magazine investigated Bezos because his wealth and position make him a newsworthy subject, and its reporting isn't influenced by politics, according to copies of emails allegedly from AMI lawyer Jon Fine that Bezos included in his post on Thursday.
Under the deal with federal prosecutors, AMI admitted it worked with the Trump campaign to kill stories "about the presidential candidate's relationships with women" and agreed to cooperate with investigators. As early as August 2015, David Pecker, the company's CEO, agreed to identify any damaging information about Trump that came his way and suppress it by buying the stories and not publishing them - a practice known as "catch and kill."
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.
(With assistance from Bob Van Voris.)
Visit Bloomberg News at www.bloomberg.com