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Does Jeff Bezos Have a Legal Case Against the National Enquirer? (wired.com)
67 points by colinprince 38 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments



I’m not American, and maybe I just don’t know enough about your legal system or this Bezos thing, but I just can’t wrap my head around it. How could he not?

How can attempted blackmail with someones private, and, stolen photos not be illegal?


If you look at what ex-prosecutors say, many of them think it's clearly enough to bring charges, but it's not clear cut case in the court.

The blackmail attempt happened during ongoing negotiations with over potential legal claims against one another. The defense will argue that they were playing hardball and using dirty and distasteful tactics that is still legal. Prosecutors will argue that this goes far beyond it.

It's weird that Pecker and the company lawyers choose take the risk. They are in no-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors under conditions that the firm can't do any crimes in next two years or the deal is off.


> ... many of them think it's clearly enough to bring charges, but it's not clear cut case in the court.

> They are in no-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors under conditions that the firm can't do any crimes in next two years or the deal is off

These two facts are crazy to me, because the prosecution doesn't have to win in court to tear up the deal. The prosecution generally just has to show that they made a determination in good faith that a crime was committed.

So there is a _much_ lower bar to tear up the deal if the prosecution thinks something smells criminal.

I just don't get why you would possibly risk the immunity deal for this. The reward doesn't seem worth the risk at all.


It's not weird if you think of AMI as a fundamentally predatory organization. They don't know how to operate outside that frame.

A leopard knows it can't afford to get kicked in the head by a zebra. But hunting is the way it evolved to live. Even if it has a close call or gets injured, it can't afford to stop hunting.

AEI had a close call with the deferred prosecution. Im guessing the organizational culture or business pressures do not allow the company to alter course significantly for years required.


Maybe they are in the habit of doing things like this and getting away with it?


That’s my guess why they were blackmailing in the first place. He already knew they were illegally obtained and they knew that would blow their deal with the government. They weren’t taking any additional risk, more like playing a risky game they thought they could win. Maybe they thought the richest married man in the world wouldn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of having his dirty laundry shared with the world. Seems like he called their bluff.


> I just don't get why you would possibly risk the immunity deal for this.

Because the investigation they are trying to kill is bound to uncover serious crimes that are not covered by the non-prosecution agreement that in aggregate present much more serious exposure. I mean, that would be a rational motive, at least.


They have been playing high stakes poker for a long time and are used to bluffing with embarrassing information . Their mistake was to think that would deter Bezos.


> The blackmail attempt happened during ongoing negotiations with over potential legal claims against one another.

This is where AMI's argument falls apart.

1. The photos were somehow acquired without permission. Meaning Bezos and/or Sanchez were victims of some sort of (likely illegal) invasion of privacy.

2. AMI is threatening to publish the photos despite not having permission to reproduce the photos from the copyright holders (Bezos/Sanchez).

3. AMI is making this threat on the dubious legal grounds of "fair use" by claiming that nude photos of a businessman's girlfriend are "newsworthy" because that somehow speaks to his business judgment.

4. Aren't seeking a monetary settlement but instead are asking the victims to (i) sign a legal document stating they have not in fact been victims of a crime at all[1] and (ii) make a public statement that is both against their interests and untrue.

That is _far_ from a good faith negotiation and it was only one way. AMI has no claim to release against Bezos or Sanchez, they're only offering to not do what they legally can't do anyway: publish pictures they do not own without permission.

[1] From proposed settlement terms: "AM affirms that it undertook no electronic eavesdropping in connection with its reporting and has no knowledge of such conduct."


I'm confused on the timeline. Was Bezos actually negotiating with AMI, or did AMI make the threat and claim to be negotiating?

I have trouble imagining that Bezos was actively considering ending washington post coverage against the enquirer or negotiating as such.


I think there was a little bit of rope-a-dope going on. Bezos was acting like he was interested in negotiating to get AMI to put this stuff in writing.


The article lists a few ways this might not be considered blackmail. Mainly, when you negotiate a legal matter that is not extortion, even though it often seems as such. The fact that some of the emails come from a lawyer could shield AMI from liability, even if what the lawyer did was unethical. I'm not completely clear on this point, of course you can't let your lawyer do anything, and wash your hands of it, but they're the ones with the professional obligation to act ethically (one of many reasons to retain lawyers). Finally, there might be a free speech case. More importantly, the above reasons might make prosecutors reluctant to bring charges or toss out their immunity deal. A party can do something probably illegal in the USA, and prosecutors may be unwilling to bring charges, for a variety of reasons. Who says the photos are stolen by the way? Do we know how they obtained them? It's copyright infringement at a minimum, which is a civil matter, so he can sue for that at least. I'm basing my information on the article, and only posting, because some people will refuse to read it (even though it's quite short).


Mainly, when you negotiate a legal matter that is not extortion,

This is not really true. It is possible to extort someone with the threat of legal action (and for a lawyer, a potentially disbarrable offense). Conversely, negotiating a legal settlement not to commit a threatened illegal act (including tortious acts, not just criminal acts) does not make the threat any less blackmail than it already was.


The possible reasons I have heard are: 1. This has always worked before with other CEOs they have blackmailed. 2. There is something big going on with the Saudis or Trump and if that gets discovered everyone at AMI is going to jail and this was a Hail Mary attempt to avoid that.


I think they had to have been lured into it — suppose Bezos allowed them to intercept some fake communications wherein Bezos makes it looks like he’s terrified of losing half his fortune over something related to the scandal and his wife’s leverage — and suppose that he did so to trick them into thinking they have leverage that he is likely to cave to so that they would attack via illegal means ...

The fact that they haven’t attacked him at all in the press makes me think that they are shitting bricks and that they really didn’t think he would publicly expose them.


> This has always worked before with other CEOs they have blackmailed

They may not have ususlly targeted CEOs before; the other report I've seen recently is from a reporter. I would guess they look for whoever is the weak link in the chain of responsibility for an unwelcome story, and often both sufficient ability to avoid the problem they seek to avoid and sufficient vulnerability to provide leverage exists somewhere below the CEO level.


I came here to say the same thing. Bezos pointed at the Saudis directly in his Medium post.

It probably started with WaPo looking into the Kashoggi murder on their own, but this mystery AMI magazine promoting MBS is another point on the trail. Bezos is probably really close to getting all of AMI indicted on treason charges and that's the value being exchanged in a possible extortion charge.


really close to getting all of AMI indicted on treason charges and that's the value being exchanged in a possible extortion charge

AMI can't be indicted on treason charges for two reasons: (1) it's not illegal to do business with the Saudis, who are technically our allies despite having funded 9/11, Al Qaeda, and numerous other terrorist groups worldwide, and (2) treason requires us to be in a declared state of war with Saudi Arabia, which we are not.

There are other potential charges that might be at play but unfortunately treason isn't one of them.


I think it comes down to the fact that there has to be a way for lawyers to discuss the hypothetical terms of a settlement... Those kinds of discussions are really hard to criminalize, and AMI takes advantage of that fact in their extortions.


I am not a lawyer, or a US citizen, however I thought settlements are about discussing terms to avoid a confrontation in a court of law.

Example: accept the terms or we’ll submit these pictures as evidence.

I can’t see how this isn’t illegal and literally blackmail. They are threatening him to make some pictures public, in order to embarrass him and to damage his marriage, and not in the context of a lawsuit, but in a newspaper.

And if these threats are legal, then the legal system is broken.


Example: accept the terms or we’ll submit these pictures as evidence.

For your specific hypothetical, it depends. First, are those pictures relevant to the litigation between the parties? Second, would the threatening party be allowed to submit those pictures as evidence regardless of what the victim decided? If the answer to both of those is yes, then threatening to introduce the pictures as evidence in court would generally not be blackmail.

However, AMI and Bezos aren't currently engaged in litigation since no lawsuit has yet been filed. The legal system is not yet involved in this matter, so your criticism of the legal system as it applies in your comment is unfounded.

And if these threats are legal, then the legal system is broken.

This comes down to the contents of the pictures themselves. If they are private pictures of himself or his GF, then generally the burden is on AMI to show that the pictures are somehow relevant to the public interest. This is an extremely high bar for them to clear, since they need to show that the nude photos are (1) relevant to the public interest in Bezos' divorce, and (2) that the public's interest in seeing the photos overrides Bezos' and Sanchez's interests in keeping their private photos private. (Note: this is just a very simplified layman's overview. An in-depth discussion would be the length of a law-review article.)


Do this or I will (do something illegal)" is not ok. "Do this or I will (do something I have a legal right to do)" is ok. Perhaps unseemly, but contract law is based on people agreeing to do things or not do things.

AMI seems to believe publishing JB's dick pics is legal for journalistic reasons. Maybe he uses an iPhone instead of a Fire Phone? That's something people should know!


Even patent trolls, a well-known example of lawyer threats, don't go as far as AMI did.


It could be a crime, but if not it is incredibly civilly actionable. Since Bezos came out other less powerful people have made similar claims.

Personally I hope he bankrupts that trash rag.


What's your opinion on the Gawker case? Did they deserve what happened?


Why would it be different ? Both doesn't respect private life of people to make money. If both case are on opposite side of the political spectrum, it's better : it means that the law is applied correctly to everybody.


Or conversely, it means the law is applied equally to rich people on either side of the political spectrum.


Yes. People have issues with it because of Thiel's far right politics, but keep in mind what Gawker did. Publishing a sex tape is a sex crime, or damn close. Imagine if Hogan were a woman and its obvious. Imagine if they published a sex tape of an actress or outed a community activist in a conservative area as gay. In some cases outing people as gay can put them in danger.

BTW I also think it was fine for Alex Jones to get deplatformed and sued for encouraging people to harass school shooting victims. Free speech doesn't mean libel, slander, blackmail, targeted harassment, sex abuse, etc. won't get you sued.

What is alleged with the National Enquirer here is much worse. It looks a lot like they are acting as blackmail enforcers for Trump and/or the Saudis. Like I said others are now coming forward.


If I'm not mistaken, Thiel went after Gawker (through Hogan) because they exposed him as being gay. He also happened to be in Saudi Arabia at the time.

Whenever a magazine publishes some trash story attacking someone they should ask themselves what's the worst that could happen.

When you attack people like Bezos and Thiel, you better be sure of what you're doing.


Oh wow. I didn't know about the SA part. That changes everything. You could almost call that attempted murder.


> When you attack people like Bezos and Thiel, you better be sure of what you're doing.

The law should be the same for everyone.

Are Thiel and Bezos above the law, or are they the only ones that can afford the protection of the law?

If so, then we have failed as a society.


> Imagine if they published a sex tape of an actress

I'm pretty sure this has been done. Normally, they get out in front of it, so they can at least cash in. Personally, I'm not thrilled with rich people being able to shut down publications that they don't like. That said, I don't know how to feel about the Gawker case. It's easy not to care, when the victim is so unsympathetic.


While a number of F-list celebrities like Paris Hilton deliberately released their sex tapes, the sex tapes of actresses and other celebrities released without their consent generally resulted in pretty heft settlements for the women, and in a few cases prison sentences for the distributors. (See e.g., Erin Andrews.)


They actually got off very lightly :-) Merely civil bankruptcy, no jail time, no career ruination and inability to find employment for the ahem "journalists" involved.


AMI used legal negotiations to give their blackmail/extortion attempt the veneer of credibility. When you look at it though, it’s definitrly extortion. AMI is saying they will hurt Bezos, if Bezos doesn’t do something to AMI’s benefit. That is quid quo pro right there.

What’s even more strange is that AMI’s lawyer had worked at Amazon for 8 years. You’d think that lawyer would have had some familiarity with Bezos and known not to mess with him, but I guess not.


Read the emails carefully, and remember they were written by lawyers. It didn't seem to reach the level of criminal blackmail to me. Experts quoted in the article agree.

If they do however publish the picture everyone talks about, I'm pretty sure they will be destroyed just like Gawker was in the Hulk Hogan case.


It's just as easy to find legal experts who believe that this is chargeable[0]. Yes, it's not very clear-cut, but there's absolutely a case to be made that this amounted to extortion since AMI clearly insinuated that embarrassing images would be released if Bezos didn't play along.

As for the the value of the request, couldn't Bezos & co. argue that discovering the process and methods of how these private messages were obtained cause damage to AMI? Especially if the security expert he hired believed that a "government entity" may have been behind it.

[0]: https://twitter.com/eliehonig/status/1093868928345038848


I am sure that Bezos lawyers think so


This is exactly what I don’t get though, how can you get away with extortion by writing it in lawyer tongue?


More discussion on that, as well as on the possible implications for the publisher's immunity deal with respect to the matter of Karen McDougal and Donald Trump (if it was a crime, that deal is void), can be found here:

https://www.npr.org/2019/02/08/692823620/what-bezos-allegati...


Lawyers have a responsibility to act ethically. You aren't necessarily going to get into trouble for what they do, if you're only following their instructions. This is shaky legal ground and a rarely successful defense that came up with all the Tump stuff. Here it seems it might be appropriate though.

"Advice of counsel defense", a Quote from Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School (taken from business insider article)

> The advice-of-counsel defense "doesn't apply if both the lawyer and the client are on the same page that what they are doing is illegal in some way," Ohlin said. "According to Cohen, both he and Trump understood that they were paying hush money to influence an election, and then covered it up to hide the illegality."

However, in this case, did both parties know that something illegal was going on? That's more of a stretch here. If I met with a lawyer and said "lets illegally commit extortion", obviously that's illegal. If my attorney just does it, as a part of an ongoing legal dispute, it's far less clear (lots of legal disputes can seem like extortion; eg. settle with us now or you'll have to pay even more to defend, is a standard strategy). That lack of clarity could be plenty of motivation to dissuade prosecutors from bringing charges; especially if they're on good terms with the party and happily using them in an ongoing investigation.


Blackmail communicated through a lawyer is still blackmail, and moreover makes a lawyer a party to blackmail.

AMI's lawyers are on very shaky ground here and there's a realistic chance they end this decade disbarred.


The article explains why, because sometimes this kind of thing is needed and good:

> This reasoning is why, for example, a lawyer can send someone a letter saying their client will agree to settle a lawsuit if certain terms are met.


I think it’s murky enough to keep the enquirer in court for a long time.


it doesn’t necessarily need to reach the level of extortion.

AMI has an agreement with the DOJ not to commit any crimes until 2021 lest they be charged for crimes stemming from the Trump porn star saga.

Question is did they commit any crime ?


Blackmail is a subterfuge here. They were negotiating, supposedly in good faith, it’s the terms that Bezos couldn’t swallow. They wanted him to stop his investigation and I don’t think that’s going to happen. He’s going to find out where the leak came from and there may very well be crimes involved with that.


I'm not sure in what world you can call this negotiation. It's literally the definition of blackmail/extortion in New York.

https://statelaws.findlaw.com/new-york-law/new-york-extortio...


And in any other place. A negotiation is for the good of both parties. Blackmail is just to stop one harming the other (and likely from a powerful standpoint).


I think this is one of the parts in law where you very much would need a specialized lawyer to begin to even grasp the law. There are too many confounding issues here. For instance I expect the paper will have some argument in the fact that publishing these sort of things is part of their regular work and benefits the 'public good'. How does this interact with the laws and what precedent has been set?

If you take these laws at completely face value many things such as out of court monetary settlements would be bordering on illegal which is certainly not the case.


What matters is whether AMI actually has the undisputed right to publish them, i.e., such as if the pictures are a clear matter of the public interest. If, however, AMI's actions could be tortious (or criminal), then threatening to publish can be blackmail depending on what they specifically threaten and the quid pro quo. If AMI's actions would be tortious, then threatening to publish is blackmail regardless of what they specifically threaten or the quid pro quo.


If publishing them is in the public good, then publish it. The second you reach out to the subject and threaten to publish unless they lie for you, that defense falls apart.


Blackmail and extortion inherently always present as negotiation; it's what is offered and asked for in the negotiation, and the context around it, that makes the offense.


Bezos isn’t the only person they were ‘negotiating’ with, the investigative journalist Ronan Farrow maintains that he and another journalist were similarly approached by AMI with promises to not publish stories about them if they agreed to stop reporting on trump.

https://www.thehill.com/homenews/media/429128-farrow-nationa...


The ace that Bezos has is that he can like, Thiel and the gawker case, Bezos can drown the National Enquirer in legal battles until they’re bankrupt even if he gives half his fortune away to his soon-to-be ex-wife.


Maybe you’re being downvoted because the comment doesn’t address the quality of the legal case or maybe because people don’t want to think of Bezos in this way. Aside from the possibility that a state actor was involved in intercepting his communication, I think what you’re pointing out is the most interesting aspect of this whole mess.

If I were running the National Enquirer and wanted to make a list of the best ways to ruin my company and likely myself, going after Bezos in this fashion would be very near the top of the list.


Yeah I’m not a lawyer. Just if I was in his shoes my first thought would be “I’m rich. I’ll squash them like a big.”


I think this is the important piece. I don't think Bezos cares what form his justice takes. I'm sure he'd be happy to burn a billion to cost them 0.5 billion, if AMI's pockets are even that deep.


In the end it doesn't matter that much if he has not a legal case, and it is a win as far as he has managed to de-weaponize this kind of public shaming threats over what is normal consensual behavior.


Better question, is there a felony federal case for blackmail?


> For one, the tabloid could argue it was merely trying in good faith to resolve a dispute with Bezos—not attempting to blackmail or extort him. This reasoning is why, for example, a lawyer can send someone a letter saying their client will agree to settle a lawsuit if certain terms are met.

So IANAL, but my understanding after some research is that this is well-trod territory resolved by deciding whether there was a ‘lack of nexus’. To quote State v. Pauling, which I have not read in full,

> Molotov Pauling was convicted of second degree extortion under former RCW 9A.56.130 (1975) for threatening to disseminate and, in actuality, disseminating nude photos of a former girl friend to collect a valid $5,000 small claims court judgment he had against her. The Court of Appeals, stating that the statute lacked a requirement that the threat be wrongful, declared former RCW 9A.56.130 unconstitutionally overbroad because it prohibited threats that constituted protected speech and reversed Pauling's conviction. We hold that a limiting construction is available, requiring that the evidence shows a “lack of nexus” between the threat made and the claim of right. This construction confines the statute's application to only extortionate threats that are inherently wrongful and are not protected speech.

> [...]

> There are significant differences between, on the one hand, threatened disclosures of such matters as consumer complaints and nonpayment of dues, as to which the threatener has a plausible claim of right, and, on the other hand, threatened disclosures of such matters as sexual indiscretions that have no nexus with any plausible claim of right.

> Id. (emphasis added). The court held, “where a threat of harm to a person's reputation seeks money or property to which the threatener does not have, and cannot reasonably believe she has, a claim of right, or where the threat has no nexus to a plausible claim of right, the threat is inherently wrongful․” Id. at 71 (emphasis added). Although a person might have a legal right to collect a judgment, there is no nexus between the exercise of that right and the threat to post embarrassing nude photos on the Internet. On the other hand, a person with a legal right to collect a judgment would have a nexus to a threat to institute garnishment proceedings.

https://caselaw.findlaw.com/wa-supreme-court/1260888.html

I found about about this through a good article by the Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/201...

Although I cannot confirm any of this—it's not my field—I can say for certain that I think this should be textbook blackmail, and it's hard to imagine the case actually failing.


The more interesting questions are (a) how did the National Enquirer get the text messages and if it was from the US government as Bezos’ PI believed then (b) did Trump know about it.

I would expect House Committees and the DOJ to be all over this in the coming months.


Indeed however "government entity" could refer to Saudi or Russian states also. I haven't seen any indication they were referring to the US government.


I bet an endpoint disclosure. Not tech.


That a guy who is building the surveillance system for governments worldwide and who has serfdom-lite attitudes towards labor laws, is suddenly a sympathetic character on HN, is kind of surprising to me.


I share your sentiment of surprise.

Bezos' pretense that he's standing up for the powerless doesn't ring true to me ("If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?") when contrasted against his attitudes towards his employees' working conditions.

This story to me is Bezos did something, that while increasingly common in modern America, remains viewed as a foolish thing to do. Nothings going to change that, not a criminal extortion attempt by AEI, not even a heartfelt medium post. I see no dominant strategy Bezos can choose that avoids the Pyrrhic conclusion of his private photo being shared widely across the Internet on services he helped create.


The intercept has an article along those lines. https://theintercept.com/2019/02/08/jeff-bezos-protests-the-...

It could be that they are both right in this situation.


He’a not a sympathetic character, but in this case I’m sympathetic to his actions.


While this is a prime case of what Russians call "Toad screwing a viper", it could be that just in this case, despite all his grandstanding, Bezos comes across as slightly more sympathetic than AMI.

Just because he is, by all indications, a terrible person (well, pretty regular for a founder) doesn't mean that one should blackmail him like that.


It is possible Bezos and AMI were negotiating something that was secret / illegal and AMI thought they’d gain the upper hand by this extortion act thinking Bezos wouldn’t want to risk his image and fortune.

Bezos rightly understood that AMI had no leverage and were on shaky ground.

Again impossible to formulate a compelling picture without more context.


The fact that this post was downvoted is not however surprising to me. Keep it up echo chamber!




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