Jeff Bezos’ Extortion Claim Said to Be Under Review by Prosecutors

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post, did not become the world’s richest man by refusing to do what it takes to win. And now that he finds himself in a mud fight with the supermarket tabloid that exposed his extramarital affair, he is showing off the same will and drive that helped him turn a simple idea — selling books on the internet — into an all-purpose, $780 billion powerhouse.

Mr. Bezos has risked significant personal embarrassment in taking on American Media Inc., the company that owns The National Enquirer, which last month devoted 11 pages to the tale of his extramarital affair. But with a personal fortune of more than $130 billion, he has the means to torment his tormentors. And as he showed Thursday with his surprise blog post, which accused the tabloid publisher of “extortion and blackmail,” Mr. Bezos is willing to get dirty in the pursuit of victory.

He has attacked American Media right where it hurts — its shaky legal position — and the strategy is showing early signs of paying off.

Federal prosecutors are reviewing Mr. Bezos’ claim that he has been extorted, according to two people briefed on the matter who were not authorized to discuss it publicly. And those prosecutors have planned a meeting with Mr. Bezos’ representatives, one of those people said.

If American Media is found to have broken a law — any law — it would be in violation of a deal with federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York. The agreement was struck in September after American Media admitted paying hush money during the 2016 presidential campaign to protect Donald J. Trump from allegations of an affair. Under the deal, the company would not be prosecuted for its Trump-related efforts as long as it stayed out of legal trouble for the next three years.

Even as American Media fell into legal jeopardy last year, its board stood by the company’s chairman, David J. Pecker, and its top news executive, Dylan Howard. On Friday, however, the company announced that the board was starting an investigation of the claims Mr. Bezos made in his lengthy blog post.

“American Media believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos,” the company said in a statement on Friday. “Nonetheless, in light of the nature of the allegations published by Mr. Bezos, the board has convened and determined that it should promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims. Upon completion of that investigation, the board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary.”

[Read a primer on the players and plot points in the fight that has erupted between Mr. Bezos and American Media.]

The Enquirer exposé detailed Mr. Bezos’ affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former host of the Fox show “So You Think You Can Dance.” It appeared a day after Mr. Bezos announced on Twitter that he and his wife of 25 years, the novelist MacKenzie Bezos, were getting divorced.

Mr. Bezos wrote the blog post himself, according to one person close to him, who was not authorized to speak publicly, and several lawyers reviewed it before he hit publish. In the post, he said American Media had threatened to publish compromising photographs of him, including a “below the belt selfie,” if he did not publicly affirm that The Enquirer’s reporting on his affair with Ms. Sanchez was not motivated by political concerns.

“If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” he wrote.

At 55, Mr. Bezos has become a prominent player in Hollywood and Washington. Thanks to Amazon’s entry into the entertainment business, he is no stranger to the red carpet and Golden Globes after-parties. And with a 27,000-square-foot mansion in the capital’s Kalorama neighborhood, which he bought for $23 million three years after he acquired The Post at a price of $250 million in 2013, he is a figure to be reckoned in political circles, albeit one who suffers name calling from the president’s Twitter account.

Now, in his fight, Mr. Bezos has assembled an all-star crisis-management team of protectors and lawyers who have popped up alongside powerful political figures and celebrities over the last few decades.

A key team member is the veteran Hollywood lawyer Martin Singer, who is technically representing Mr. Bezos’ longtime security chief, Gavin de Becker. Mr. Singer knows exactly how American Media works, and he has not always worked on the virtuous side of the street.

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Jennifer Salke, left, the Amazon Studios chief, with Mr. Bezos, the screenwriter Sam Esmail and the actress Emmy Rossum at a Hollywood party in January.CreditEmma Mcintyre/Getty Images

This is the lawyer who represented Bill Cosby in 2005, when The Enquirer was preparing an article about sexual assault allegations made against Mr. Cosby by a member of Temple University’s athletics staff, Andrea Constand. Mr. Singer persuaded the tabloid to sit on Ms. Constand’s story in return for an exclusive interview with the former prime-time star. And now he is Team Bezos.

Also working on behalf of the Amazon founder is the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner. It has long represented Amazon in corporate matters, but now it is working for Mr. Bezos personally.

One of the firm’s partners now working for Mr. Bezos, Jonathan Sherman, previously represented American Media as it worked to squash negative stories about President Trump, according to a person familiar with the situation. A second Boies Schiller Flexner lawyer working for Mr. Bezos is William Isaacson, who represents Amazon in its corporate matters.

One of the firm’s name partners, David Boies, defended the producer Harvey Weinstein against accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. As part of his services, he helped orchestrate a smear campaign against the alleged victims of the mogul’s sexual misconduct and hired Black Cube, a private investigations firm staffed by former Israeli intelligence agents, to undercut accusers and the journalists looking into Mr. Weinstein.

Another team member is Mr. de Becker, who has thwarted stalkers for stars like Olivia Newton-John and Cher and provided security for public figures visiting President Ronald Reagan and his family at the White House.

Mr. de Becker is also the author of “The Gift of Fear,” a 1998 book that offers advice for dealing with threats (available on Amazon in paperback for $7.19). Concerning blackmail attempts specifically, he counseled confrontation, rather than appeasement — and it seems that Mr. Bezos followed the de Becker strategy with his blog post.

“Victims often try to appease the extortionist, but these efforts just allow him to retain the underserved mantle of a decent person,” Mr. de Becker wrote. “I suggest that clients compel the extortionist to commit to his sleaziness, which puts him on the defensive.”

In fighting back, come what may, Mr. Bezos is showing himself to be not unlike his no-holds-barred antagonist in the White House. And his multipronged media counteroffensive against the tabloid publisher has all the hallmarks of the opposition research campaigns that spice up election seasons.

Before and after Mr. Bezos published his revealing post on the online platform Medium, various media outlets gave significant space to competing and sometimes contradictory claims about the possible motives behind American Media’s big story. All of those theories had little to do with the idea that salacious details about the private life of a famous multibillionaire would be of interest to checkout-stand impulse buyers.

In an article late last month, The Daily Beast quoted Mr. de Becker as confirming that his team was looking into Michael Sanchez, the brother of Ms. Sanchez, as the potential leaker of private text messages The Enquirer published in its exposé. Mr. Sanchez denied it. As the piece noted, he is close with the Trump adviser and longtime provocateur Roger Stone, who has been indicted by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Then there was Mr. Bezos’ suggestion in his Medium post that the coverage was somehow tied to American Media’s attempts to win business and possibly investment from Saudi Arabia. Mr. Bezos and his investigators had failed to offer any solid evidence for that theory — or, for that matter, any of the others.

In October, American Media paid for and produced a magazine called The New Kingdom, which mysteriously appeared on newsstands ahead of a visit to the United States by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The publication of this 100-page glossy, filled with laudatory text and splashy photos of the crown prince, coincided with American Media’s efforts to strike business deals in Saudi Arabia. The company has faced double-digit losses in its print circulation in recent years.

Mr. Bezos has long played hardball in his business, and Amazon can wipe value off entire companies just by announcing new ventures in their industry. Only recently did Amazon start turning a consistent profit.

Mr. Bezos’ aggressive stance plays out in the company’s actions in ways big and small. Last decade, a start-up called Diapers.com began gaining traction by offering free shipping to new parents. Amazon aggressively lowered its prices, undercutting the upstart.

Amid the price war, it bought the company for $545 million in late 2010 and shut the site down in 2017. Amazon now captures 67 percent of all baby-related purchases online, according to the marketing analytics firm Jumpshot.

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