On the evening of Saturday, March 4, the night before the Oscars, the powerful supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle had dinner with a friend, Paolo Zampolli, the founder of ID Models, at the Japanese restaurant Koi in Los Angeles.
A few tables over, another friend of Mr. Zampolli’s, Page Six editor Richard Johnson, was eating dinner with fellow Page Six reporter Paula Froelich.
Why, Mr. Zampolli asked, didn’t Mr. Burkle go over and introduce himself to Mr. Johnson?
Mr. Burkle refused. “I don’t want to meet these people,” he said.
In fact, for more than a year, Mr. Burkle had been drawn into an ever-thornier relationship with the Page Six column that Mr. Johnson edits.
He was a recurring figure in the gossip section, but despite his wealth and power, he had hardly any pull—his contact information, a source close to Page Six said, was not even in the column’s Rolodex. “That’s how little they dealt with Burkle,” the source said.
It began when Mr. Zampolli succeeded in arranging a meeting for Mr. Burkle with Jared Paul Stern, a freelance writer and reporter for the Page Six column under Mr. Johnson, at a penthouse at the Palace Hotel the previous July.
Mr. Stern brought with him a tote bag full of sample clothes from the clothing line he’d wanted to start. Mr. Stern has said the meeting was about presenting Mr. Burkle with his plans for a fashion line he wanted to call Skull and Bones.
An e-mail relationship between Mr. Stern and an associate of Mr. Burkle’s, Kevin Marchetti, commenced. On March 14, both parties agree, Mr. Marchetti received an e-mail from Mr. Stern that read, in part: “I understand Ron is upset about the press he is getting. If he’s really concerned he needs a strategy for dealing with it … he certainly has the means to do so.”
Mr. Stern had not written any of the various gossip items about Mr. Burkle, according to sources close to Page Six. Even so, the approach demonstrated the extent of the ethical murkiness and favor-swapping surrounding the Post’s franchise column.
According to Mr. Burkle’s spokesman, that’s when Mr. Burkle’s attorneys alerted the authorities.
On March 22, they would meet in person again, at a loft in Tribeca.
It was set up by Mr. Burkle’s attorneys, a spokesman for Mr. Burkle told The Observer, to see if Mr. Stern would articulate the meaning of his e-mail—and if, in doing so, he would commit a crime.
By the time of the second meeting, an associate to Mr. Burkle said, Mr. Burkle received a telephone call from a reporter asking about the interview. The source declined to say whether the caller was from the Daily News, or how Mr. Burkle responded, though Mr. Burkle’s spokespersons have denied that Mr. Burkle leaked information about the investigation to a reporter.
Their second meeting with Mr. Stern, on March 31, had outside help: It was scripted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the F.B.I., according to Mr. Burkle’s spokesman. This meeting was taped, and it was orchestrated to determine whether Mr. Stern intended to commit a crime.
“After consulting with legal counsel and the authorities, Mr. Burkle’s security team set up the first videotape,” said Michael Sitrick, Mr. Burkle’s spokesman, in an e-mail to The Observer. “The taping at the second meeting was done under the auspices and with F.B.I. agents and an Assistant U.S. Attorney present and at their direction.”
“The March 22 meeting with Mr. Stern is the first time a meeting or anything else was videotaped in that room or any other of the apartment since Mr. Burkle has been there,” the spokesman wrote.
He claimed that footage and transcripts from a few minutes of the tape, circulated widely in the press, were not released by Mr. Burkle, or with his knowledge by someone else. And anyway, the tapes—which Mr. Stern has said would vindicate him if viewed in full—would help, not harm, the investigation, the spokesman said.
“There is no indication that anything has been done to endanger the case,” Mr. Burkle’s spokesman wrote. “While we would like to release the entire tape to show the absurdity of Mr. Stern’s claims, the government has asked as recently as yesterday that we not do so.”
Mr. Stern has described his version of what is on the rest of the tape.
A source with knowledge of the creation of the tape has a slightly different account.
“On the first tape he spends the first 20 minutes talking about, he starts off saying that there are three levels of protection. It is almost a soliloquy. How they are like the Mafia, how they are like family. There are three levels of protection. Of course, the first thing you should be is a source: What you really need is protection from me, and I’m the first level of protection. The top level of protection is Richard Johnson, and I will tell you how to take care of Richard.
“Here are three, are four examples of how other people have taken care of Richard. Harvey Weinstein has done it this way, Ron Perelman has done it this way. Joe Francis has done it this way.
“What Jared said on the tape was that we don’t have any money, but we are powerful. We can destroy people without any liability, that’s our specialty.
“At the end of the first tape, he tells you what protection will cost.”
At the end of the first meeting, according to the source, Mr. Burkle went over everything with the U.S. Attorney and with the F.B.I. agents. They scripted the second meeting.
He was to ask very simple things: “What do I get for my money, and how do I know you won’t ask for more? And what happens if I don’t do this?”
According to the source, the U.S. Attorney’s office—which had representatives in the next room when the tape was being made—reviewed the tapes, called the Post and said, “We have an investigation going on. Please protect all your records.”
Mr. Sitrick, writing in an e-mail, recalled Mr. Burkle’s first meeting with Mr. Stern, in July of 2005. There were only three.
Somewhere, after all, there is a tape of those two March meetings. But the meeting in July is a matter of he-said, he-said. And it is there that the accounts of the two men begin to differ.
“There was never any mention at that meeting, despite Mr. Stern’s representations to the contrary, that Mr. Burkle invest in Mr. Stern’s clothing company,” said Mr. Sitrick.
The meeting lasted less than an hour. Mr. Burkle wore blue Converse sneakers, Levis and a black polo shirt, according to Mr. Stern. At the meeting, Mr. Burkle complained about his Page Six coverage. Mr. Zampolli said he remembers saying that in order to improve his coverage, he needed to be friends with Page Six. Mr. Stern said that Mr. Burkle should supply Page Six with gossip to improve his coverage.
“If you want to be in good with us, you gotta feed us stuff,” Mr. Stern recalled saying.
The meeting ended on good terms, according to Mr. Stern.
“Mr. Stern asked Mr. Burkle if he would purchase some of his shirts, wear them and give some to his friends,” Mr. Burkle’s spokesman said. “He did.”
Sixty, to be precise.
Then, according to Mr. Stern, Mr. Burkle’s associate, Kevin Marchetti, began e-mailing Mr. Stern “Sightings” and other bits of gossip from Turkey during August and the Clinton Global Initiative Conference in September. But the gossip, according to Mr. Stern, wasn’t up to Page Six’s standards.
So began a complicated relationship between the mogul and the gossips. Sources close to other staffers, including reporter Fernando Gil and Page Sixer Chris Wilson, said they too had been approached by Mr. Burkle for meetings but had turned them down.
Mr. Burkle also knew Mr. Gil’s girlfriend, a model.
Last September, Mr. Burkle flew Mr. Gil’s girlfriend to California on his private Boeing 757 with a group to stay at his Southern California mansion, according to a source with knowledge of the trip.
Several weeks later, Mr. Gil’s girlfriend broke off contact with Mr. Burkle, according to a source. Then, late last year, after Mr. Gil’s girlfriend stopped traveling to Mr. Burkle’s home, a friend of Mr. Burkle called Mr. Gil’s girlfriend and said: “[Mr. Burkle] is really upset with you, and he’s deleting you from his phone,” a source with knowledge of the phone call said.
Around the same time, Mr. Gil was assigned to write an item about the demise of Radar. Mr. Gil wrote that Radar owner Mort Zuckerman’s wealthy friends—including Mr. Burkle—had pressured the real-estate baron and Daily News owner to shut down the magazine.
The source with knowledge of the tape said Mr. Burkle had never met with or talked to Mr. Zuckerman.
On Dec. 16, the day the item ran in Page Six, Mr. Burkle called Mr. Gil on his cell phone to complain about the item, a source with knowledge of the call said. Mr. Burkle complained to Mr. Gil on the phone that Page Six didn’t call him for comment in reporting the item, and he told Mr. Gil, “I’m going to write a letter to Rupert Murdoch and get you fired,” a person with knowledge of the call said.
Mr. Burkle may not have been wrong. Otherwise, perhaps his name would have been in that Rolodex after all. But a source with knowledge of the events says Mr. Gil put in a call to Mr. Sitrick, who didn’t respond.
It was not just Mr. Gil who wrote about Mr. Burkle in the Page Six column, where individual items are printed unsigned.
“It’s been various writers,” said Steven Rubenstein, a spokesman for the Post.
But sources close to Page Six said that none of the items was written by Mr. Stern.
Mr. Gil declined to comment on the episode. But shortly thereafter, a mutual friend of Mr. Gil and Mr. Burkle suggested the two meet. Mr. Gil declined.
So by the time Messrs. Burkle and Zampolli were sitting down to dinner at Koi, it was perhaps understandable that Mr. Burkle, who had still never met Mr. Johnson, rejected Mr. Zampolli’s suggestion.
“Mr. Burkle was complaining that every week he’d get an item written about him that would be absolutely false and untrue,” Mr. Zampolli told The Observer. “Me and many other friends of Mr. Burkle, we suggested it’d be better to know them.”
“I said the best thing is to get to know them and tell them your side of the story,” Mr. Zampolli said.
He’d been saying that to Mr. Burkle since the previous July, when Mr. Zampolli contacted Mr. Johnson to try to arrange a meeting between the two, he said. Mr. Johnson, Mr. Zampolli said, responded that he didn’t have time.
“Burkle could get Clinton on the phone in a heartbeat, but he couldn’t meet Richard,” a person with knowledge of the proceedings said.
The Skull and Bones clothing line still hadn’t had Mr. Burkle’s money behind it—except for those 60 shirts.
Joe Tacopina, the lawyer representing Mr. Stern, has characterized all of these meetings as inquiries into the possibility of Mr. Stern’s becoming a media consultant to Mr. Burkle, and Mr. Burkle investing in Skull and Bones.
“I think this guy was disgruntled with many articles written about him in the New York Post, not by Jared but just in general, and wanted a way to get back at the Post, and used Jared’s initial conversation about investing in the clothing company as a way to lure Jared into a conversation,” said Mr. Tacopina, expounding the case Mr. Stern has been making for himself in voluminous press coverage. “That’s what we believe was his intention from the get-go. And then to bring it into this conversation about trying to hire Jared as a media consultant, and then from there, you know, he tried to get him on these tapes.”
Around 5:30 p.m. on April 6, the New York Post’s editor in chief, Col Allan, appeared in the massive, open-plan newsroom of the Post, flanked by two men in dark suits.
The men, according to several reporters, were interested in protecting the computer belonging to Page Six reporter Jared Paul Stern, which could potentially be used as evidence in an investigation.
Little was left to the reporters’ imagination what the investigation was about: Mr. Stern’s boss, Richard Johnson, the editor of the Page Six column, and several of his staffers had received phone calls from a Daily News reporter earlier that afternoon about an investigation into whether Mr. Stern could be charged with attempting to extort money from Mr. Burkle.
During the previous hour and a half, Mr. Allan had been in meetings with lawyers on the fourth floor.
The lawyer Ed Hayes, who is a friend to Mr. Johnson (and famously the character on which the novelist Tom Wolfe based the defense lawyer in Bonfire of the Vanities), got a call from Mr. Stern.
“He called me up and said, ‘Oh, there’s a terrible crisis,’ and I said, ‘Come on over and see me.’”
According to Mr. Stern, Mr. Hayes’ first advice was to get out of town and stay out of the press. The approach did not appeal to Mr. Stern, and by Saturday, Mr. Stern had hired Mr. Tacopina.
“I do a lot of major cases in New York. Do you know my background?” Mr. Tacopina said by phone from Aruba, where he was meeting witnesses in the Natalee Holloway murder case. “He just chose me by reputation. He just chose me and asked me to help him out.”
On Friday afternoon, after meeting with Donald Rumsfeld in an editorial-board meeting, Rupert Murdoch walked through the newsroom.
In the days since, one Post staffer said that reporters have been looking suspiciously at the boxes of freebies arriving at the Page Six desks.
By the end of the day on Friday, though, people were joking that Mr. Stern needed the money to fund his penchant for his lavish wardrobe. Staffers are speculating what will happen to the next issue of Page Six the Magazine. It is scheduled for September, but Mr. Stern was the editor and no replacement has been named. There has been no talk thus far of Richard Johnson stepping down.
“He’s always been seen as an elegant, commanding figure who played rough with people,” one staffer said of Mr. Johnson. “But this was an established column. He lent his presence of command.”
Some Post staffers are rallying behind the column, especially as the Daily News continues to hammer away at the Post.
“We’re just biding our time, and it’ll be fun when the Daily News fucks up the next time,” one staffer said. “It’s old-school tabloid stuff. It’s fun to be a part of.”
“What appears to have happened is that the story leaked out mid-investigation, which is probably not surprising,” said Paul Engelmayer, who was the lead prosecutor in the case against Autumn Jackson, who was accused of extorting money from the actor Bill Cosby. “Now they’re stuck with a case frozen in space, and they may or may not be able to get more undercover evidence.”
“From what I’ve been told,” said Post spokesman Howard Rubenstein, “there have been no other people questioned. Nor have there been any subpoenas.”
A former prosecutor for the Southern District of New York saw it differently:
“This is a big story …. Ten days between somebody having a meeting with the bureau and being arrested is not slow.”
Col Allan and Post editors haven’t addressed the case of Mr. Stern with the staff, and there has been no announcement of a new ethics policy for reporters on Page Six or elsewhere at the paper.
“This is not financial coverage, this is celebrity coverage,” said Mr. Hayes. “It’s a gossip column. It’s not covering hard news. You don’t apply the same standards to gossip columnists that you do to everybody else.”
But through his spokesman, Mr. Rubenstein, Mr. Allan e-mailed the following statement to The Observer:
“The Post is looking carefully at the situation and they will tighten the ship. And we are going to tighten the ship.”