AMI’s defense against any possible criminal charges likely will have broader implications for publishers that report unflattering details about the private lives of wealthy and powerful people like Bezos, whose blog asks, “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
The truth of the matter is that he is standing up, and the Justice Department is effectively doing his bidding.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York is no stranger to politically motivated investigations. It wasted no time looking into the claims of a porn star and a former Playboy model as part of an investigation into Donald Trump’s alleged violations of campaign finance law.
That investigation resulted in the criminal sentencing of Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and a plea deal with AMI in December over its role in Cohen’s unlawful actions.
In his blog, Bezos alleged that AMI demanded that he stop an investigation he started to determine how the Enquirer obtained his personal text messages for an article it published about his alleged extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez.
The investigation also sought to determine whether AMI had a political motivation to pursue the article, such as helping President Trump, a friend of AMI President David Pecker. Trump has criticized Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, for negative press coverage.
The most damning emails that Bezos posted to his blog are from AMI’s Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard and Deputy General Counsel Jon Fine to a lawyer representing Bezos' private investigator.
Howard’s email to Marty Singer, the lawyer who represents investigator Gavin de Becker, lists descriptions of images that AMI has in its possession, including a naked selfie of Bezos in a bathroom and a photo said to be depicting his genitals.
Fine’s email lists proposed terms of a deal in which AMI won’t publish the photos if Bezos agrees to end De Becker’s investigation into AMI.
I’m not sure why Howard sent the email to Singer, instead of letting AMI’s lawyers handle any communications with a counselor for an opposing party. Singer has no obligation to advise Howard that such communications should come through AMI’s attorney.
It’s not ethical for a lawyer to talk to an opposing party who’s represented by counsel, but I can't say whether Singer has communicated with Howard. I contacted Singer's office by phone and email to verify the authenticity of the emails that Bezos posted in his blog, and to learn more about any communications he has had with Howard. I didn't hear back as of press time.
As a lawyer, AMI’s Fine must be at least somewhat familiar with criminal law -- namely, prohibitions against blackmail and extortion. The company’s claims that it was negotiating in good faith are specious and don’t appear to merit First Amendment privileges.
As long as AMI obtained the photos legally, it has the freedom to publish them. But using them as a bargaining chip is unethical.