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The National Enquirer pushed the envelope with Bezos, but was it a crime?

The National Enquirer pushed the envelope with Bezos, but was it a crime?
Amazon.com Chief Executive Jeff Bezos has accused the National Enquirer's parent company of extortion and blackmail. (Los Angeles Times)

Legal experts say the National Enquirer has undoubtedly pushed the envelope far when comes to its dealings with Jeff Bezos and his team, but proving a crime of extortion might prove difficult.

What is Bezos alleging?

Bezos, the Amazon.com chief executive who also owns the Washington Post, took the extraordinary step of publishing emails between lawyers for his security consultant and the Enquirer on the website Medium on Thursday. He then tweeted a link to his post.

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He wrote that the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., wanted him to make a false public statement declaring that he and the consultant, Gavin de Becker, “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

Bezos refused. “Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten,” he wrote.

The post was accompanied by copies of emails between Martin Singer, a lawyer representing De Becker, and Enquirer Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard.

“I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our news gathering,” Howard wrote, including a “below the belt selfie” of Bezos and several other shots. Howard added, “It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail — and quickly.”

Bezos noted that the email “got my attention,” and then made clear “any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”

What does the Enquirer say?

American Media said Friday it acted lawfully while reporting on the relationship between Bezos and Sanchez. The publisher said it would investigate whether the communications that Bezos published amounted to a threat and how the tabloid got the messages.

Is this extortion?

Los Angeles attorney Louis Shapiro, who represents high-profile criminal defendants in both federal and state court, said, "This isn't your traditional extortion.

"It is usually, ‘If you don't give me something then I will reveal or report something.’ The person usually wants money," he said.

Shapiro said California and federal law defines extortion as the "depriving of property or attempting to do so by threatened force, violence or fear. Shapiro said it is clear AMI was seeking something from Bezos, but the question is whether that contract is actually property.

"They didn't demand money, just an agreement," he said. That makes it far harder to prosecute, he said. "You rarely see this kind of extortion case filed involving lawyers. Things can get muddy between lawyers.”

But Shapiro said the "extraordinary circumstances here might mean prosecutors give it a second look as it could have a profound impact on public policy and public perception."

Shapiro said the Enquirer has long wrapped itself in the 1st Amendment and it may ultimately argue "it has a constitutional right to publish these items."

Do we have the full picture?

Former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson, now a professor at Loyola Law School, said: "Theoretically this could be extortion." But Levenson said the full context of the communications need to be seen to understand why such a discussion was ongoing.

"What are the circumstances of the negotiations?" she said. "Not every piece of aggressive rhetoric in legal circles rises to extortion or blackmail," she said.

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Former prosecutor Dmitry Gorin said that, while blackmail seems sexy as a crime, it is one of the hardest kinds of cases to prosecute and, when it comes to extortion and lawyers, the legal landscape gives a lot of protections.

"A civil lawsuit, in the end, is probably going to be Mr. Bezos’ best redress against the Enquirer,” he said.

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