David Pecker, CEO of National Enquirer Publishing Company, Granted Immunity in Cohen Case

© Francois Durand/Getty Images

David Pecker, the chief executive of the company that publishes the National Enquirer, was granted immunity by federal prosecutors for providing information about Michael Cohen and Donald Trump in the criminal investigation into hush-money payments for two women during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.

In exchange for immunity, Mr. Pecker, CEO of American Media, Inc. and a longtime friend of Mr. Trump, has met with prosecutors and shared details about payments Mr. Cohen arranged in an effort to silence two women who alleged sexual encounters with Mr. Trump, including Mr. Trump’s knowledge of the deals, some of the people said.

Prosecutors in the Cohen investigation have indicated they won’t proceed with criminal charges against either Mr. Pecker or Dylan Howard, chief content officer of American Media, for their participation in the deals, according to people familiar with the matter.

Messrs. Pecker and Howard and American Media didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.

Mr. Pecker’s assistance appeared to have informed the charging documents made public on Tuesday as part of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea to eight criminal charges, including campaign-finance violations tied to the payments.

During his guilty-plea hearing, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, said that at Mr. Trump’s direction, he broke federal laws on campaign contributions by coordinating payments to the two women for the purpose of suppressing negative information about Mr. Trump and influencing the 2016 election.

American Media executives were involved in both hush-money deals that formed the basis of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea to campaign-finance violations, prosecutors said. One was a $130,000 payment to Stephanie Clifford — a former porn actress who goes professionally by Stormy Daniels — to keep her from publicly discussing an alleged affair with Mr. Trump.

The second was a $150,000 payment made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her exclusive story of an alleged extramarital affair with Mr. Trump, a story that was purchased by American Media in August 2016 at Mr. Cohen’s urging, and then never published.

The immunity status of Mr. Pecker was first reported by Vanity Fair. The Wall Street Journal published Wednesday that Mr. Pecker provided information to prosecutors.

Mr. Pecker’s relationship with Mr. Trump stretches back decades. In the late 1990s, as chief executive of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, he published Trump Style, a quarterly magazine distributed to guests at Trump properties. Mr. Pecker has been a frequent guest at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

Mr. Pecker’s immunity deal comes at a delicate time for American Media, which is struggling financially. The firm, which publishes Us Weekly, Star magazine and Ok!, among other gossip and fitness titles, has been engaged in restructuring its substantial debt, the Journal previously reported.

The company ended last year with an outstanding debt load of $920 million and added approximately $80 million more in June when it acquired gossip titles In Touch, Life & Style and Closer, as well as other magazines. The deal gave American Media control over nearly every tabloid weekly sold in the U.S., aside from Meredith Corp.’s People magazine.

American Media’s business woes stretch back several years.

The company declared bankruptcy in 2010 and underwent a restructuring in 2014 that handed control to its two biggest creditors, Chatham Asset Management LLC and hedge-fund manager Leon Cooperman.

Tuesday’s charging documents against Mr. Cohen revealed a closer level of coordination between American Media and the Trump campaign than previously known. Mr. Pecker is identified in the documents as the chief executive of a media company that owns “a popular tabloid magazine.”

Prosecutors said that in August 2015, shortly after Mr. Trump announced he would run for president, Mr. Pecker offered to help Mr. Cohen find negative stories about Mr. Trump’s relationships with women and arrange for them to be purchased, but never published. This is a practice known in tabloid media as “catch and kill.”

SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal – Nicole Hong and Lukas I. Alpert