In September 2018, an obscure Hollywood talent agent reached out to a reporter at the National Enquirer with a hell of a story. Michael Sanchez said that one of the world’s wealthiest people had accidentally sent nude photos of himself to a colleague. He had access to the photos, the reporter told her editors, and he wanted hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn them over.
Less than four months later, the Enquirer ran the first of a multi-part series exposing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s extramarital affair. AMI says the stories were based entirely on text messages and lewd photos provided to the publication by Sanchez, the brother of Bezos’ mistress.
The Daily Beast first reported in early 2019 that Sanchez was the Enquirer’s source. And the Enquirer has since confirmed his role. But Sanchez has vehemently disputed public accounts of his involvement since then, including that he was AMI’s sole source—and has filed lawsuits against Bezos and American Media Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company. On Tuesday, AMI moved to dismiss its lawsuit and sanction Sanchez for allegedly abusing the court system.
As part of that motion, AMI revealed extensive new information about how, in its telling, the Bezos expose came together—and about Sanchez’s role in leaking the relevant information to the tabloid. Its court filing contained emails, text messages, and sworn statements by the three AMI employees who co-bylined its Bezos stories: former chief content officer Dylan Howard, editor James Robertson, and reporter Andrea Simpson.
Those documents tell AMI’s side of the story, and they paint a picture of an investigation driven almost entirely by Sanchez’s eager desire to sell the salacious tale for a sum that he hoped would exceed half a million dollars. (Neither Sanchez nor AMI responded to requests for comment.)
At the same time, the documents reveal some inconsistencies in what AMI employees told each other about the story, what Sanchez told them, what eventually appeared in print, and what AMI has said publicly about the series since it ran in January 2019. The person who supposedly received Bezos’ inadvertently sent photos is not revealed, and AMI’s court filing is cagey about the nature and source of the most salacious material undergirding its investigation.
Even the order of events is less clear than AMI’s position indicates. According to AMI, Sanchez first reached out to Simpson, the Enquirer reporter, on Sept. 10, 2018. But a person familiar with the situation said reporters at the Enquirer had started to investigate Bezos earlier, raising questions over AMI’s timeline as presented in the court filings.
Indeed, the person familiar with the matter said that on Sept. 9, a day before Simpson says she first heard from Sanchez, a directive went out from a senior AMI editor to multiple reporters with a seemingly out-of-the-blue demand for an in-depth investigation into Bezos, his life story, finances, family, business, and any potential skeletons in his closet. The editor didn’t mention Sanchez or any specific suspicions about an extramarital affair.
Lurking behind the tabloid’s fixation on Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man, have been suggestions from Bezos’ top security consultant, Gavin de Becker, that the government of Saudi Arabia may have had a role in the Enquirer story. “Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information,” de Becker wrote in a March 2019 column for The Daily Beast. “As of today, it is unclear to what degree, if any, AMI was aware of the details.”
In January of this year, two United Nations special rapporteurs released a report, commissioned by de Becker, providing some limited forensic evidence linking Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the unauthorized access of Bezos’ phone. The Saudi ruler appeared to be taunting the Amazon founder about his affair—months before the Enquirer began its investigation.
AMI, which has enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Saudi royal family, has consistently and vehemently denied that that government played any role in its Bezos reporting. The origins of the investigation, as it portrayed them in its court filing this week, were more mundane, and, AMI insists, began with that tip from Sanchez.
Simpson reported back to Howard on her initial Sept. 10 exchange with Sanchez in an email filed in court this week. “Michael has a potentially great story,” she wrote. Much of the email was redacted. Its subject line was “Lauren Sanchez,” the name of Michael Sanchez’s sister. She was also Bezos’ lover, a fact that AMI says it didn’t learn for another six weeks.
Sanchez, Simpson told Howard, had told her that a friend of his worked for a “Bill Gates-type, very well known billionaire.” Bezos, whom Sanchez didn’t identify at the time, was “bragging” to this mutual friend about the actress he was sleeping with, and decided to send the friend a screenshot of a text message from the woman. Instead, as Simpson relayed Sanchez’s tip, Bezos inadvertently sent nude photos of himself, “sexy photos of the actress,” and “sexual emails between the two.”
“The guy who got them wants $, likely 6 figures,” Simpson told Howard. “I told Michael the material and story so far sounds good.” Sanchez, Simpson wrote, would be “the middle man” in the exchange.
Two weeks later, Sanchez followed up with Simpson to tell her that his friend, the one to whom Bezos had supposedly sent the photos inadvertently, was already pitching the story to another outlet, the Daily Mail. That publication had offered $300,000 for the story, Sanchez told Simpson. A knowledgeable Daily Mail source said that was “patently untrue,” and that the publication had never been offered the story, let alone agreed to a six-figure payment for it.
If the supposed Daily Mail offer was a bluff, it underscored Sanchez’s apparent eagerness to get AMI on board. He wanted the company to enter into a non-disclosure agreement, and he was specific about the type of material it needed to cover. “NDA should say ‘text messages & multiple photos that are deemed to be of a sexual and/or inappropriate nature,’” he told Simpson in a text.
At this point, AMI insists that it still didn’t know who the mysterious billionaire was. Sanchez referred to him by the codename “Bill” in communications with Simpson, Howard, and Robertson, the AMI editor. But in early October, Simpson and Sanchez met in person, and, she says, he showed her printed out copies of text messages and suggestive photos with faces cropped out.
By mid-October, Sanchez was getting impatient. “The NDA delays are likely going to push the story to one of you [sic] weak rivals,” he told Howard. “I would prefer to avoid that.” Sanchez also reached out to Robertson with additional language he wanted added to the agreement: if AMI published the story Sanchez had brought them, he would get $300,000. If they used photos or screenshots he’d provided, Sanchez wanted $500,000 plus a percentage of that edition’s sales.
The agreement was ratified the following day, October 18, and it stipulated that Sanchez would receive $200,000—far less than his asking price, but according to AMI, the most they’d ever paid for a story. The agreement covered “information, photographs, and text messages documenting an affair between Bezos and L. Sanchez.”
On that same day, Sanchez told Howard that “Bill” was Jeff Bezos. A few days later he revealed that the mistress was his sister.
Sanchez also went into more detail about the materials in his possession. He emailed Robertson a document titled “Project 77.docx” with an extensive account of information that he would provide to AMI, including photos described as “PIC OF [BEZOS] SELFIE IN UNDERWEAR / TOWEL,” “SHIRTLESS SELFIE PHOTO OF [BEZOS] IN JEANS,” and “PIC OF [LAUREN SANCHEZ] IN BIKINI / PICOF [LAUREN SANCHEZ] IN RED DRESS.”
Notably absent from the photos described in that document were any suggesting they were of a fully nude Bezos, as described in Simpson’s email to Howard a couple months earlier.
The Enquirer did obtain such photos—or, at least, Howard told Bezos they did in what the latter dubbed a “blackmail” threat after the Enquirer published its expose. According to emails that Bezos published in a Medium post in February 2019, Howard reached out to him and threatened to publish a “‘below the belt selfie’—otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick’” unless Bezos publicly affirmed that the Enquirer’s story about him was not politically motivated. The Amazon chief declined, then published the emails.
“Below-the-belt selfie” is also the turn of phrase that Sanchez has used in the more than a year since the Enquirer’s stories ran to describe nude photos of Bezos in AMI’s possession. And he has repeatedly denied providing such photos. The phrase also pops up repeatedly in AMI’s court filing this week, which says that Sanchez provided such a photo to the Enquirer, but is vague about some of the details.
According to Robertson, Sanchez had promised such a photo to AMI. He, Howard, Simpson, and Sanchez jumped on a FaceTime call in November 2018, on which Robertson says he “observed Ms. Simpson looking at a printed photograph that Mr. Sanchez represented was a below-the-belt selfie of Mr. Bezos.”
Howard provided a similar description of the photo in his declaration to the court submitted this week. “During the conversation, I saw Ms. Simpson look at a printed photograph that Mr. Sanchez told us was a below-the-belt selfie of Mr. Bezos.”
Both Howard and Robertson conspicuously avoid saying that they saw the photo in question. But AMI’s court filing is more definitive. “The evidence demonstrates that Sanchez did share with AMI a below-the-belt selfie of Bezos,” it states.
At the same time, the filing states that the photo came not from Bezos’ supposed inadvertent text message to his colleague, but from Lauren Sanchez herself. “Sanchez said that Bezos had texted the selfie to Lauren Sanchez, and that Lauren had later shared the photo with Sanchez,” the filing recalls.
A couple weeks later, Sanchez had more material for AMI. He sent Howard and Robertson an email on Nov. 11 containing nearly a dozen screenshots of suggestive text message conversations between Bezos and his sister. A number of the texts are redacted in AMI’s court filing, indicating that they may have included additional photos.
Michael Sanchez has, over the past year, characterized his involvement in the Enquirer story as one designed to help his sister and her boyfriend, using public relations skills acquired through a career managing entertainment industry talent. But according to AMI, he told Simpson that they were entirely unaware that he was sharing their photos and text messages.
“He says Lauren and Jeff are NOT in cooperation with him,” Simpson told Howard and Robertson in a late November email. “Neither one have a clue.”