Amazon's Bezos Accuses National Enquirer of Attempted Blackmail -- 2nd Update
By Lukas I. Alpert and Laura Stevens
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com Inc., accused National Enquirer's publisher of trying to blackmail him by threatening to release embarrassing photos, escalating a fight that began with the tabloid's revelations of his alleged extramarital affair.
In a lengthy post on the web platform Medium, Mr. Bezos alleges that American Media Inc. demanded that he call off investigators he brought in to determine how the Enquirer obtained his personal text messages for the initial article it published and whether it had untoward motives in pursuing the article.
In a statement Friday, American Media LLC said it "believes fervently that it acted lawfully in the reporting of the story of Mr. Bezos" and that it was acting in "good-faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him."
"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," the statement said. "Upon completion of that investigation, the Board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary."
Mr. Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post and is the world's wealthiest man, said he resisted the alleged extortion attempt. He included emails he said his legal team received from executives at American Media that detailed the photos the tabloid threatened to run, including sexually explicit selfies of the tech tycoon.
"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," Mr. Bezos wrote. "If in my position I can't stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?"
Mr. Bezos' blog post didn't include any correspondence his representatives sent to AMI.
According to Mr. Bezos' blog post, the email referring to the photos came from American Media's chief content officer, Dylan Howard, just hours ahead of a Washington Post article that alleged possible political motivations behind the Enquirer's exposť into Mr. Bezos' love life last month.
Mr. Howard didn't return messages seeking comment.
Shortly before the original Enquirer story was published, Mr. Bezos announced that he and his wife were divorcing after 25 years of marriage. While they haven't made public the terms, the split could have implications for Mr. Bezos's 16% stake in Amazon, which is the core of his net worth of more than $130 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Ms. Bezos, who was instrumental in helping to launch Amazon, could be entitled to half the couple's wealth depending on where they divorce, according to lawyers.
Mr. Bezos wrote in the post that he hired security consultant Gavin de Becker to probe the source of the Enquirer's article. As part of his forensic investigation of electronic communications between Mr. Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, the woman with whom he allegedly had an affair, Mr. de Becker has spoken to members of her family, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Mr. Bezos took aim at American Media's chief executive, David Pecker, pointing to media reports that he has used his company and the Enquirer for political reasons. In his post, titled "No thank you, Mr. Pecker," Mr. Bezos wrote that an AMI leader had contacted the Amazon chief's representatives several days earlier advising that "Mr. Pecker is 'apoplectic' about our investigation."
Mr. Bezos wrote that a few days later, American Media proposed a mutual release of claims between the parties that would require Mr. Bezos' camp to affirm that it has "no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM's coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces."
Failure to comply, according to Mr. Bezos' account, would result in American Media publishing photos including sexually explicit ones of the billionaire.
"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," Mr. Bezos wrote. "I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out."
Mr. Bezos also noted that he has been a target of criticism from President Trump due to the Post's tough coverage of his administration.
"My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me," Mr. Bezos wrote in his post Thursday. "It is unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy. President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets."
Mr. Bezos wrote despite that dynamic, he didn't regret purchasing the publication, calling it a "critical institution with a critical mission."
Mr. Pecker has had a relationship with Mr. Trump for decades and the tabloid threw its support behind his 2016 presidential campaign, dedicating numerous covers to extolling his virtues, while lambasting his opponents. Mr. Pecker has acknowledged in the past to buying embarrassing stories about Mr. Trump and burying them, a practice known as "catch and kill."
American Media has denied there were any political motives behind the report on Mr. Bezos.
Last year, Mr. Pecker and American Media both agreed to provide assistance to federal prosecutors in Manhattan who were probing dealings involving Mr. Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, including with the tabloid. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty in August to criminal charges including campaign-finance violations.
Messrs. Bezos and Trump have exchanged barbs for years. Before the election, Mr. Trump accused Amazon's CEO of buying the Washington Post to influence politics. "If I become president, oh do they have problems, " Mr. Trump said in a speech in 2016.
Weeks before the election, Mr. Bezos said at a conference that the candidate's behavior "erodes democracy around the edges."
The Washington Post, which Mr. Bezos owns personally -- not as part of Amazon -- has repeatedly said that the newspaper operates with complete independence in making all news and editorial decisions.
A spokeswoman for the Post didn't respond to messages seeking comment.
After Mr. Trump criticized Amazon and Mr. Bezos on Twitter in December 2015, the Amazon CEO, who also runs closely held rocket-making company Blue Origin LLC, said he would reserve a seat on one of his rockets for Mr. Trump. "#sendDonaldtospace," a message from Mr. Bezos' Twitter account read.
Criticism increased last year, as Mr. Trump repeatedly tweeted about Amazon, sending the online retail giant's shares down temporarily.
In his post, Mr. Bezos questioned whether alleged connections between American Media and the Saudi government played any role in the exposť.
In the past, AMI has engaged in talks with Saudi financiers to help shore up its debt-laden business, people familiar with the matter have said.
Last year, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed which the CIA has concluded was likely ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi government has contested the findings.
"The Post's essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles," Mr. Bezos wrote.
Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs who was in Washington on Friday, characterized the dispute between Mr. Bezos and AMI as a "soap opera." When asked whether Saudi Arabia played any role, Mr. Jubeir said: "As far as I know: flat no."
--Alexandra Berzon contributed to this article.
Write to Lukas I. Alpert at firstname.lastname@example.org and Laura Stevens at email@example.com