Gossip Boss's Cash Grab

In "grave mistake," Page Six editor admitted pocketing payoff

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Gossip Boss's Cash Grab

MAY 18--Prompted by a legal threat from a former contributor, the editor of Page Six has acknowledged taking cash from a New York businessman whose restaurant has been frequently mentioned in the New York Post column, the gossip industry's ground zero.

The admission by Richard Johnson came today in a preemptive strike against Jared Paul Stern, the former Page Six freelancer who was bounced last year after being accused of trying to shake down billionaire Ron Burkle (federal investigators have declined to pursue charges against Stern).

The admission by Johnson came a week after Stern's lawyer forwarded a Post attorney an affidavit from Ian Spiegelman, a former Page Six contributor, that details an assortment of alleged unethical practices by Johnson and fellow Posties. The Spiegelman affidavit was sent by Stern's lawyer in advance of a scheduled telephone conversation with Eugenie Gavenchak, a lawyer for News Corporation, the Post's parent company.

A copy of the letter and the Spiegelman affidavit can be found here.

In a lengthy item headlined "Lies & smears aimed at Post," Page Six today catalogues some of Spiegelman's claims, though chooses to counter only some of his devastating charges. Answering Spiegelman's claim that Johnson divvied up a $3000 payoff delivered in 1997 by restaurateur Nello Balan, Page Six admitted that Johnson actually pocketed $1000 in cash, a "grave mistake" that led to him to being "reprimanded," according to Post editor Col Allan.

What the column doesn't reveal, however, is when Johnson fessed up about pocketing the money. Allan didn't become the newspaper's editor until 2001. Additionally, Spiegelman describes the cash as payment for a "favorable mention" of Balan's Madison Avenue restaurant in the column, while today's Page Six response terms the money a "Christmas gift."

The Post also does not say whether Balan's Page Six payouts extended beyond 1997, though the experience of Daily News gossip columnist George Rush indicates that Balan's proclivity to stuff envelopes did not end a decade ago. As first reported by Nikki Finke, Balan messengered an envelope to Rush in 2005 after the reporter had published items about celebrities dining at Nello. Inside, Rush found $600 in cash. He immediately called Balan and asked, "Are you out of your mind?" The businessman responded that the money could be spent at his restaurant. Rush, who sent the bribe back, told Balan, "I don't know how you're used to relating to reporters, but you don't need to do that here." (5 pages)