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Gossip Writer Accused of Extortion Says He Sought an Investment Deal

New York Post reporter denies asking for cash payments in videotaped talks with a billionaire.

April 11, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Jared Paul Stern, the gossip writer at the center of a federal extortion inquiry, said Monday he had discussed money with Ron Burkle, whom he knew socially through a friend, because he believed the California billionaire wanted to invest in his clothing company.

Stern, 35, spoke by telephone from the Catskills farmhouse where he has been since late last week, when investigators from the U.S. attorney's office told his bosses at the New York Post about the investigation. He said he had not been contacted by investigators and hoped there would be no charges against him.

Stern was videotaped during two meetings last month at Burkle's apartment in New York suggesting strategies to protect Burkle from inaccurate and undesirable coverage on the Post's iconic gossip page, according to an account by a New York Daily News reporter who has seen the tapes. At one point in the tape, Stern suggested payments that could amount to $220,000 over the course of a year, the report said.

He said Monday the sums did "not even remotely" refer to cash payments, but to investments in Skull & Bones, Stern's clothing line. "That's what [Burkle] led me to believe," he said.

Stern and his new defense lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, came out swinging, saying Burkle had arranged to entrap the writer.

Burkle released a statement late Monday criticizing Stern's "re-characterization of events." The statement said federal authorities had thoroughly reviewed tapes of both meetings and then chose to move forward with their investigation by contacting the New York Post. During the second meeting, Burkle's end of the conversation was partly directed by FBI agents and an assistant U.S. attorney, the statement said.

"The tapes show that Mr. Burkle made it very clear he had no interest in investing in Mr. Stern's clothing company," the statement reads. "They also show that Mr. Burkle never had any interest in Mr. Burkle serving as a so-called media or other consultant."

Citing law enforcement sources, ABC News reported Monday that FBI agents monitoring the conversation were prepared to arrest Stern on the spot, but lacked evidence of extortion.

Howard Rubenstein, a spokesman for the New York Post, said the newspaper had had no further contact from investigators since Thursday, when they asked the for access to Stern's computer hard drive and other material. The Post suspended Stern, who works for the paper as a freelancer, that day.

Rubenstein said he did not know what criminal charges Stern might face, if any.

"The Post is just going to rely on the government to spell that out," he said. "He certainly slipped very badly on an ethical basis, if nothing else."

Extortion is defined as obtaining money or anything of value by threatening harm, noted James Jacobs, a professor of criminal law at New York University's law school. The threat of harm must be something "you have no right to impose," he said, so publishing information would generally not apply.

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