American Media, Inc. (AMI) is based in New York and therefore subject to the state’s penal code, including section 135.60, Coercion in the second degree:
“A person is guilty of coercion in the second degree when he or she compels or induces a person to engage in conduct which the latter has a legal right to abstain from engaging in, or to abstain from engaging in conduct in which he or she has a legal right to engage.”
The statute says that the coercion must be “by means of instilling in him or her a fear that, if the demand is not complied with, the actor or another” will take one or more of several particular actions. These include a threat to “expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject some person to hatred, contempt or ridicule.”
The would certainly seem to fit the threat by National Enquirer publisher AMI to make public a “d*ck pic” and other personal photos of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos if he did not quash his investigation into how the supermarket tabloid acquired a number of highly personal texts between him and a woman other than his wife. The AMI chief content officer, Dylan Howard, wrote in an email to Bezos that the billionaire himself made public on Thursday:
However, in the interests of expediting this situation, and with The Washington Post poised to publish unsubstantiated rumors of The National Enquirer’s initial report, I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our newsgathering.
In addition to the “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick’” — The Enquirer obtained a further nine images. These include:
· Mr. Bezos face selfie at what appears to be a business meeting.
· Ms. Sanchez response — a photograph of her smoking a cigar in what appears to be a simulated oral sex scene.
· A shirtless Mr. Bezos holding his phone in his left hand — while wearing his wedding ring. He’s wearing either tight black cargo pants or shorts — and his semi-erect manhood is penetrating the zipper of said garment.
· A full-length body selfie of Mr. Bezos wearing just a pair of tight black boxer-briefs or trunks, with his phone in his left hand — while wearing his wedding ring.
· A selfie of Mr. Bezos fully clothed.
· A full-length scantily-clad body shot with short trunks.
· A naked selfie in a bathroom — while wearing his wedding ring. Mr. Bezos is wearing nothing but a white towel — and the top of his pubic region can be seen.
· Ms. Sanchez wearing a plunging red neckline dress revealing her cleavage and a glimpse of her nether region.
· Ms. Sanchez wearing a two-piece red bikini with gold detail dress revealing her cleavage.
It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail — and quickly.”
Note that the pictures are not described with regards to news value, but in terms of the embarrassment they are liable to case Bezos—what might constitute “contempt and ridicule” as contemplated by the New York statue.
Federal law speaks of extortion, rather than coercion. It generally involves wrongdoing and usually concerns things of monetary value. Former Manhattan prosecutor Rebecca Roiphe, presently a professor at New York Law School with degrees from Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, notes that the applicable New York state law is much broader.
“New York State prosecutors could charge AMI's conduct under the state coercion statute,” she told The Daily Beast. “This statute essentially makes it a crime to try to threaten a person in order to force that person to do something. The state statute, unlike the federal statute, is worded broadly in a way that would cover AMI's threats to publish Bezos' photos and texts. Unlike the federal statute, there is no requirement that the threat be 'wrongful,' which would make the state crime easier to prove."
She noted that coercion in the second degree is only a Class A misdemeanor. She also noted that it nonetheless a crime. And it would appear to be enough to violate the non-prosecution agreement that AMI entered into with federal prosecutors regarding its illegal assistance to the Trump campaign. The September 20, 2018 agreement states that AMI “shall commit no crimes whatsoever.”
The agreement further states, “It is understood that if the Government has determined that AMI has committed any crime after signing this Agreement,” that it is liable to be for such felonies as perjury and obstruction of justice of which it has has essentially admitted. All of its statements to the feds and to the grand jury “shall be admissible in evidence in any criminal proceeding brought against AMI.”
In other words, they would be totally screwed as result of their own admissions. Federal prosecutors are reportedly considering whether AMI and therefore company CEO David Pecker violated the agreement.
Of course, it would be easier to root for AMI to suffer some consequences for its behavior if more of us had declined to be party to its shameful behavior and simply refused to read Bezos texts that never should have been made public.
In the meantime, Bezos’ decision to stand up to AMI and tell them to go ahead and do their worst may well have made him more acceptable to New Yorkers. More than a few folks in the city have objected to the incentives he garnered when choosing Queens at the site of a new Amazon headquarters.
But in standing up to AMI, Bezos showed actual moxie. And that will take you far in a city that should have no place for the likes of AMI, which showed the difference between moxie and gall when it issued a statement saying that it was “in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with [Bezos]."
"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 AMI statement continued. “Upon completion of that investigation, the Board will take whatever appropriate action is necessary.”
By the present indications, the appropriate action may well be going to jail.