Note: This article was first published in the ABA’s Criminal Justice magazine in Summer 2019.
By Sara Kropf
In early February 2019, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos published an explosive blog post accusing the National Enquirer’s owner, American Media Inc. (AMI), of blackmailing him. Bezos’ accusations could have serious consequences for AMI. In September 2018, AMI signed a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
As part of the non-prosecution agreement, AMI must cooperate with the government’s investigation of a hush-money payment made to Karen McDougal from President Donald Trump. The non-prosecution agreement also mandates that AMI “shall commit no crimes whatsoever” after its execution. If the government determines that AMI did blackmail or extort Bezos, then it may charge AMI “for any federal violation of which this Office has knowledge.” In other words, if this was a crime, then all bets are off and AMI no longer enjoys the protection of the non-prosecution agreement.
In addition to heading Amazon, Bezos owns The Washington Post, which has been critical of President Trump’s administration. AMI and its CEO, David Pecker, are closely linked to President Trump. After the National Enquirer published texts between Bezos and his girlfriend, Bezos hired private investigators to find out how the media group had obtained his texts.
In two emails quoted in Bezos’ post, AMI employees describe salacious photos of Bezos in its possession and offer not to publish additional intimate texts and these salacious photos in return for certain concessions by Bezos. The “proposed terms” of the agreement are outlined in an email from AMI’s deputy general counsel. Central to the proposal is that AMI will not publish other texts and photos in return for
A public, mutually-agreed upon acknowledgment from the Bezos Parties, released through a mutually-agreeable news outlet, affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility.
It is worth noting that the AMI proposal also includes some legal terms that one would not normally expect in a blackmail threat, such as a “full and complete mutual release of all claims” between AMI and Bezos, and the use of JAMS mediation to resolve any disputes.
Following Bezos’ public accusation, there have been media reports that the New York federal prosecutors are considering whether AMI broke the law with respect to its demands to Bezos. AMI’s conduct may have been questionable, but it is far from clear that federal law makes it a crime.