DOCUMENT: Celebrity, Internet

Gossip Site Paid $165,000 For O.J. Tape

TMZ's checkbook journalism enriched architect of Vegas confrontation

9-22-08 CORRECTION: According to testimony today at O.J. Simpson's armed robbery trial, the gossip site TMZ paid $150,000, not $165,000 as TSG previously reported, for an audio tape of the Las Vegas hotel room confrontation between Simpson and his posse and two memorabilia dealers. Government witness Thomas Riccio reluctantly divulged details of his TMZ payout during cross-examination by Simpson lawyer Yale Galanter. Riccio also acknowledged scoring $15,000 from ABC and banking a check from Entertainment Tonight.

MARCH 10--An online gossip site paid $165,000 to a witness in the O.J. Simpson armed robbery case for a copy of an audiotape the man surreptitiously made during last year's bizarre confrontation in a Las Vegas hotel room.

Memorabilia dealer Thomas Riccio scored the checkbook journalism windfall from last September, days after Simpson and a small posse confronted two businessmen inside the Palace Station hotel, according to sources familiar with the terms of the confidential deal. The tape, which Riccio turned over to prosecutors after selling a copy to TMZ, captured the loud encounter between Simpson & Co. and Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong, the collectibles dealers whom the athlete accused of stealing (and trying to sell) some of his personal belongings.

Riccio, who orchestrated the Palace Station meeting, used a digital recorder to memorialize the confrontation, and then immediately contacted TMZ to negotiate a sale of the audio evidence. While he initially sought $2 million, Riccio settled for the six-figure payout, which is still likely the largest sum paid by a gossip site for a story. In its original report about the tape, TMZ stated that it had "obtained" the recordings, avoiding any mention that their procurement was secured by a $165,000 check delivered to Riccio's Los Angeles home.

Riccio signed a TMZ contract containing a confidentiality clause barring him from disclosing details of the financial transaction, presumably so that future "sources" don't use the $165,000 payoff as a template in their negotiations with the site, which is co-owned by Time Warner's AOL and Telepictures units. TMZ is apparently the only Time Warner entity that is allowed to pay for stories or tips (that corporate roster includes CNN, magazines like Time, People, and Sports Illustrated, and small outfits like The Smoking Gun).

The affable Riccio, 45, is a convicted felon (four times over) who has spent a total of eights years in prison for a variety of scams, and even once escaped from a minimum security federal lockup in Danbury, Connecticut.

Riccio, who declined to comment about his deal with TMZ, appears to have fallen out of the site's favor, judging by a February 28 "exclusive" excoriating him for cashing in on Simpson's legal troubles. Riccio, the site reported, has written "Busted," a "sleaze-a-zoid account" of the Las Vegas incident. Riccio's tome, the cover of which you'll find at right, goes on sale next month.

According to TMZ, the "sick" book is Riccio's latest tainted score from the Simpson case, which, the site notes, has included a $70,000 payment from a porn site that Riccio frequently mentioned "during his shameless appearances" connected to the Simpson case. The site added, "And, of course, Riccio peddled the audiotape of the hotel confrontation to...oh yeah, us."