NEW YORK – 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 a supermodel. 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, a 53-year-old divorced man, was not amused.
The stories, he said, were bogus and had to stop. Page Six contributor Jared Paul Stern is suspected of demanding $100,000 and an annual $10,000 stipend from Ron Burkle in exchange for not writing negative stories about him, the Post said.
Now the newspaper has suspended Stern amid a federal investigation into the extortion allegations.
Stern’s attorney, Edward Hayes, was hopeful that criminal charges against his client would not be necessary. He said, “Burkle is a reasonable guy and there’s no need to press it further.”
FBI spokeswoman Christine Monaco declined to comment.
A clue into the mystery behind the gossip items came in a March 14 e-mail sent by Stern to Burkle’s right-hand man, according to a person close to the case who provided details of the exchange.
“I understand Ron is upset about the press he is getting,” the e-mail said. “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.”
Burkle said in a statement that he and his lawyers repeatedly told the Post that items on Page Six were inaccurate, but to no avail.
After a series of discussions, Burkle and Stern met in New York, according to the person familiar with the case. They met twice in March, and the sessions were secretly videotaped. On at least one occasion, law enforcement agents monitored the conversations from the next room.
Stern, 36, followed up the meeting by e-mailing deposit instructions and several other e-mails asking where his money was, the person familiar with the case said.
“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,” editor in chief Col Allen said in a statement.
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. He is managing partner of Yucaipa Cos., a conglomerate with interests in the media, clothing and supermarket industries.
Burkle, one of the world’s richest men, has an estimated personal wealth of more than $2 billion.