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Scandal shows a pen's might

Gossip columnist Jared Paul Stern relishes the opportunity to escalate his war of words with California billionaire Ron Burkle.

April 19, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

OAK HILL, N.Y. — Jared Paul Stern, the gossip writer, was mixing Campari-and-sodas on a recent evening when more urgent matters drew his attention. He stepped past his collection of walking sticks and looked onto the porch.

"Snoods, quick, she's got a vole, and it's still alive," he said to his wife, Ruth Gutman, whom he calls by the pet name "Snoodles."

"That cat goes on a kill-crazy rampage when spring comes," Stern said, darkly, returning to his desk. "She eats them," he said. "So."

There is a slightly surreal mood in the farmhouse, where Stern, 35, has spent the 10 days since news broke that the FBI was investigating him for an apparent attempt to swap favorable coverage on Page Six, the New York Post's gossip column, for payments that would amount to $220,000 over the course of the year.

For the first day or two, Stern said, he was truly frightened, thinking he would be arrested imminently.

Since then, though, Stern's outlook has improved. He has turned feverish attention to discrediting Ron Burkle, the California billionaire who secretly videotaped him during two March meetings. On the website Gawker, which he guest-edited over the weekend, Stern launched a cavalcade of gleeful attacks on Burkle, whom he termed a "fishy financier," a "puffy potentate" and a "rubbery robber baron." (Burkle declined to comment for this story.)

In his more optimistic moments, Stern can see opportunity beyond the scandal.

"Not only is he a foppish gossip columnist, now he looks like he's a bit dangerous. It's perfect," said cartoonist Tony Millionaire, a friend from their New York Press days. "I smell a book deal."

Now entering its third week, the Page Six scandal has unfolded in full tabloid splendor in the Post's two major competitors, the New York Times and the New York Daily News. Few journalistic institutions are as despised -- or as avidly read -- in New York as Page Six, where a handful of reporters feeds nuggets of gossip to editor Richard Johnson. Among the current crop of reporters, few were as distinctive as Stern, who covered the dot-com-era social scene wearing ascots and a wide-brimmed fedora.

It is not yet clear whether Stern will face charges stemming from the videotaped meetings. The Post has suspended Stern, a freelancer, and a spokesman for the newspaper said last week that the offer he apparently made on videotape was, if not illegal, certainly unethical.

Still, the conversation may not rise to the level of criminal charges. Stern's defense attorney, Joseph Tacopina, said that "in their best six minutes [of tape], they still don't come close" to the legal definition of extortion, although other charges, like wire fraud or mail fraud, are possibilities. Tacopina said he does not know how fast the investigation is progressing.

Stern and his wife retreated to their home in the Catskills shortly after the news broke about the FBI investigation.

It is a remote place -- 2 1/2 hours by car from Manhattan -- where they live with a cat, a dog and two ferrets. They paid $220,000 for it and fixed it up to look more like a manor house and less like a farmhouse. They bake their own bread, and they don't have cable.

In better days, they occasionally dress up in black tie -- just the two of them -- and convene in the dining room for a formal dinner. A friend, film director Whit Stillman, said they remind him of Nick and Nora Charles, the bon vivant detectives from "The Thin Man" film series.

"Those are the very good years -- 1937, 1938," Stillman said. "To me, that seems to be where Jared comes from."

Gutman looked weary as she described the endless series of strangers calling, among them anonymous sources passing on tips about the Burkle affair.

The entire drama, she said, "has become so bizarre, like something out of a movie, and very much of a surprise." Years ago, she used to accompany Stern when he covered parties for the Post. It never seemed like a blood sport to her.

"I can't think of anything I've read in a gossip column in recent memory that sounded as if it could be damaging or hurtful to anybody. Obviously, with the items not really about me I suppose I can't really say, but to me, most of it seems to be in the spirit of fun," she said. "Which is why this comes as such a shock."

By last week, Stern had put his gossip skills to use, defending himself with obvious relish. Tacopina, who has handled a long series of high-profile cases in New York, said it is not uncommon for him to glance at his computer at 3 a.m. "and there's a Jared e-mail giving me the latest article [on the case] from Beijing." Typically, clients in Stern's position "take months to get out of that initial stupor."

Tacopina said he has never had a client who counterattacked so aggressively.

"In part, it's joint strategy. He doesn't do anything I ask him not to do," Tacopina said. "On the other hand, he's a guy who is master of his own domain."

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