(Reuters) – Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon.com Inc, has accused the owner of the National Enquirer of trying to blackmail him with the threat of publishing “intimate photos” he allegedly sent to his girlfriend unless he said in public that the supermarket tabloid’s reporting on him was not politically motivated.
The accusation, published in a blog post (https://bit.ly/2WOLuOf), is the latest twist in a weeks-long saga that has brought the world’s richest person’s private life into the spotlight and thrusts him deeper into a battle with the leading U.S. tabloid publisher, which has had close links with the president of the United States.
“Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption,” Bezos wrote. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”
American Media Inc (AMI), the owner of the National Enquirer, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Bezos and his wife announced last month that they were divorcing after 25 years of marriage, following a period of “loving exploration” and trial separation. That same day, the National Enquirer touted it was publishing alleged intimate text messages between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, a former television anchor whom he was said to be dating.
Shortly after that, Bezos opened an investigation into the leak led by Gavin de Becker, a longtime security consultant and former appointee of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. De Becker proceeded to tell media that the leak was politically motivated.
Bezos, Amazon and the newspaper he owns privately, the Washington Post, have all been targets of attacks on Twitter by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Washington Post has published many articles critical of the president. It acts as Amazon’s “chief lobbyist,” Trump has said on Twitter, without presenting evidence. Trump called Bezos “Jeff Bozo” in a tweet last month about the National Enquirer’s coverage of his divorce.
“It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy,” Bezos wrote. “President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his blog, Bezos cited an email from AMI deputy general counsel, Jon Fine, to a lawyer representing de Becker. In it, AMI proposed a public acknowledgment from Bezos and de Becker that “they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that (AMI’s) coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
In return for such an acknowledgement, according to the email, AMI offered “not to publish, distribute, share, or describe unpublished texts and photos.”
Bezos said the statement AMI was proposing was false and described the offer as an “extortionate proposal.”
Fine and de Becker could not immediately be reached for comment.
The alleged extortion raises questions among some legal observers about whether AMI and its chief executive David Pecker have violated a cooperation agreement AMI made last year with federal prosecutors in connection with a $150,000 hush-money payment given to Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who claims she had an affair with President Donald Trump.
The payment was made during the 2016 presidential election to influence that election, according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). The deal not to prosecute was conditional on AMI not committing another crime, the office said.
A spokesman for the SDNY attorney’s office declined to comment on the matter.
Bezos, who owns more than $120 billion in Amazon stock, said in his blog: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Jeffrey Dastin in Washington; Additional reporting by Nathan Layne in New York, Chris Sanders in Washington and Bill Tarrant in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Rigby)