The text of the e-mail is crucial to understanding what transpired between Stern and Burkle. “I understand Ron is upset about the press he’s been getting,” the e-mail states. “If he’s really concerned, he needs a strategy for dealing with it and regulating it rather than merely reacting. It’s not easy to accomplish, but he certainly has the means to do so.” It was at this point, the Times reports, that Burkle “suspected he was being extorted” and “reached out to his attorney, who then reached out to law enforcement.” What followed was right out of the FBI/DOJ playbook: Stern agreed to meet Burkle at least twice in late March at Burkle’s loft, where Burkle’s security team — including a private-investigations firm — recorded that and a subsequent meeting at which a federal agent and a prosecutor joined Burkle’s security detail “to monitor the recording.”
As told by the Times, Stern’s story reads like a fairly cut-and-dried case of blackmail — a crime in every state — but also a federal offense of “extortion,” when any facilities of interstate communications — mail, telephone, e-mail, and the like — are used in an attempt to coerce someone into doing something that he or she does not want to do. Lawyers for high-profile “victims” who report such attempts to the authorities frequently bring in the feds, in part because the federal definition of “extortion,” like many federal crimes, is notoriously broad and loose, so that a wide variety of conduct, much of it lawful though not very nice, can be spun as criminal.
The Times’ skepticism should have been aroused by the fact that its sources turned over only six — six! — heavily edited minutes of roughly three hours of recordings. What’s more, it was Burkle, not Stern, who asked, “How much do you want?” Throughout the snippets reported in the Times, it is Burkle who tries to put into Stern’s mouth the magic words signifying extortion. But Burkle never quite succeeds, since Stern was not threatening Burkle but trying to enlist him as an investor in Stern’s clothing line and to convince the supermarket mogul to hire him as his media adviser. Stern did not threaten to retaliate should Burkle turn him down.
Also recall that Stern was only a twice-a-week contributor to Page Six, so it’s virtually certain he did not have the power to deliver on any promises about Page Six coverage. More important, in additional transcript excerpts published by Post archrival the New York DailyNews last Monday, Stern makes reasonably clear that he is not seeking to extort Burkle: “It is not a stickup,” Stern assures the mogul at one point. Stern’s attempt to become a media consultant to Burkle is suggested when he offers to “help you when it is needed.” When Burkle, obviously at the suggestion of the feds monitoring the conversation, tries to get Stern to adopt the description of “protection” for the service Stern is offering, Stern demurs, saying that he is offering “help” and not protection. “Protection,” Stern admonished Burkle, “adds overtones.” When Burkle suggests that maybe he should pay the Page Six editor $100,000, Stern again demurs. “Well, I don’t think you want to do that.” Instead, lectures the would-be media consultant, “you need a strategy,” not protection. Stern offers to show Burkle how to become “a friend of the paper” rather than a subject of its gossip pages. If Burkle can ingratiate himself with the Page Six editor, in particular, he could become an insider rather than an outsider. And what if Burkle refuses to pay Stern for these services? the mogul inquires. “We can still be friends, but we’re not going to be as good friends.”