A federal election watchdog fined the publisher of the National Enquirer $187,500 for squelching the story of a former Playboy model who claimed she'd had an affair with former President Donald Trump.
The Federal Election Commission fined A360 Media, formerly known as American Media, for paying Karen McDougal $150,000 in August 2016, saying the payment was made to keep her story from becoming public before the presidential election.
The FEC said the publisher's “payment to Karen McDougal to purchase a limited life story right combined with its decision not to publish the story, in consultation with an agent of Donald J. Trump and for the purpose of influencing the election, constituted a prohibited corporate in-kind contribution.”
Campaign finance laws prohibit corporations from cooperating with a campaign to affect an election.
The publisher didn't immediately return a message left via its website. An emailed statement from a representative for David Pecker, who stepped down as CEO of the publisher in 2020, said that Pecker was not a party to the settlement and had not paid a fine.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan agreed in 2018 not to prosecute American Media in exchange for its cooperation in a campaign finance investigation. That probe led to a three-year prison term for Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who had urged the publisher to obtain the rights to McDougal's story and promised to reimburse them for the payment.
Cohen served about a year of his sentence before he was released to home confinement as the coronavirus spread through prisons. Since then, he has spoken out frequently against Trump, and tweeted on Wednesday that he was willing to cooperate with federal prosecutors on any other prosecution of Trump or his associates.
The National Enquirer for years buried stories about Trump and some other celebrities with a “catch-and-kill” strategy of buying the rights to these stories and then not publishing them.
Common Cause, a public interest group which filed the complaint with the FEC in 2018, said in a statement that the fine was a “win for democracy” but said the agency's “failure to hold former-President Trump and his campaign accountable for this violation lays bare the dysfunction at the FEC." In its 2018 complaint, it also asked the agency to investigate Trump and his campaign. In a letter to Common Cause Tuesday, the agency said there was “an insufficient number of votes to find reason to believe that the remaining respondents violated the Federal Election Campaign Act "
Common Cause also noted that the FEC's Republican commissioners had blocked enforcement against Trump for a payment to Stormy Daniels in a decision released last month. The FEC has three Republicans, two Democrats and an Independent commissioner.
Common Cause said that the FEC “has again shown itself incapable of fully enforcing the campaign finance laws passed by Congress.”
The National Enquirer and A360 Media are owned by hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. A Chatham representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment. A 2019 deal that would have sold the Enquirer to the former head of the airport newsstand company Hudson News was not completed.