FBI investigating alleged Post Page Six scam of billionaire

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NEW YORK (AP) – It started with a few seemingly innocuous gossip items about billionaire businessman Ron Burkle.

The New York Post’s Page Six, a supermarket of stories about bold-faced names, said the “party-boy billionaire” was dating supermodel Gisele Bundchen. They claimed he was barred from Michael Moore’s premiere after-party for “Fahrenheit 9/11” because Burkle was in a fracas. Another story detailed “Spiderman” star Tobey Maguire flying on Burkle’s private jet for a New Year’s weekend at his Aspen, Colo., mansion.

Burkle was not amused. The stories, he said, were bogus and had to stop. Page Six contributor Jared Paul Stern said he could make that happen – for $220,000, according to a person familiar with the case speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Now, Stern has been suspended from the Post amid a federal investigation into the extortion allegations.

A big clue into the mystery behind the gossip items came in a March 14 e-mail sent by Stern to Burkle’s right-hand man, Kevin Marchetti, according to a person close to the case who provided details of the exchange to The Associated Press.

“I understand Ron is upset about the press he is getting. If he is really concerned, he needs a strategy for dealing with it and regulating it. It is not easy to accomplish but he certainly has the means to do it,” the e-mail said.

Edward Hayes, the attorney for Stern, was hopeful that criminal charges against his client would not be necessary.

“He was a part-time employee, he’s lost his job,” Hayes said. “Burkle is a reasonable guy and there’s no need to press it further.”

Burkle said in a statement that he and his lawyers repeatedly told the Post that “the articles and the items about him in Page Six are inaccurate but to no avail.”

What happened next, according to the person familiar with the case, was a series of discussions that led to a meeting between Burkle and Stern in New York. Burkle told the gossip writer that he wanted to discuss putting an end to the many column mentions.

They met in New York on March 22 and March 30, in sessions that were secretly being videotaped. On at least one of the occasions law enforcement agents were monitoring the conversations from the next room.

Stern allegedly demanded $100,000 up front, and $10,000 a month for one year to make Burkle’s headache go away.

Stern, 36, followed up the meeting by e-mailing deposit instructions for the $100,000 down payment on Monday and several other e-mails asking where his money was, the person familiar with the case said.

“Once we are in business together, you will be part of the family,” Stern allegedly told Burkle at the videotaped meeting. “We don’t do things to people in the family.”

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar of the Poynter Institute, which provides journalism training, said the incident is unusual in the sense that journalists are more often accused of getting paid to put stories in the paper – not keep them out.

“Instead of ‘I’ll pay you money to put it in, now you have to pay me money to leave it out,”‘ Clark said.

In a statement, Post editor in chief Col Allen said that, “should the allegations prove true, Mr. Stern’s conduct would be morally and journalistically reprehensible, a gross abuse of privilege, and in violation of the New York Post’s standards and ethics.”

For the record, Burkle said he owns no Colorado mansion, never hosted Maguire or any other celebrities on his private plane, and covets his privacy. The 53-year-old divorcee is managing partner of Yucaipa Cos., a conglomerate with interests in the media, clothing and supermarkets.

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