NEW YORK (AP) _ New York Post gossip writer Jared Paul Stern, who's accused of trying to extort $200,000 from billionaire Ron Burkle in exchange for positive coverage, says he was set up by the businessman and is being smeared.
Stern said Burkle initiated discussions about the payment, offering money for the writer's clothing line called Skull & Bones.
``He set it up through a middle man,'' Stern, a freelancer for the newspaper's Page Six gossip column, said in a telephone interview Sunday. ``He initiated discussions in a potential investment in my clothing company. That's where the whole money issue originated. He was the first one to bring up any question of payment for press coverage.''
Stern is under federal investigation for allegedly demanding $100,000 and a $10,000 a month stipend in exchange for not writing negative stories about Burkle. Burkle, who has an estimated personal wealth of more than $2 billion and has given millions of dollars to political causes, is known for his investments in supermarkets, including Food4Less, Dominick's and Ralphs Grocery Co.
Telephone messages left for a Burkle spokesman and at his company's law department were not returned. Burkle has said he and his lawyers repeatedly told the New York Post the articles about him in Page Six were inaccurate.
Stern, who has been suspended by the Post, contacted the AP by phone Sunday to arrange sending an e-mail statement from one of his lawyers. The statement from attorney Joseph Tacopina said: ``Mr. Stern has been the victim of a smear campaign and expects to be fully exonerated and reinstated in his position.''
When reached later by phone and asked to explain the statement, Stern said he questioned the accuracy of the reporting by the Daily News, the Post's rival, which has aggressively pursued the case.
Stern said: ``Obviously the Daily News' role needs to be examined.'' He didn't elaborate.
A spokeswoman for the Daily News rejected the criticism.
``I find it completely ridiculous that a person who has been caught on videotape in an FBI sting operation is making these allegations,'' Donna Dees said. ``It smacks of desperation.''
The FBI has declined to comment.
The Post's editor in chief, Col Allen, said that if the extortion allegations are 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.''