Columnist counters extortion claim

Jared Paul Stern, the New York Post gossip contributor accused of shaking down billionaire Ron Burkle, went on a PR offensive Monday, denying the allegation that he wanted cash for more favorable treatment in the paper’s Page Six column.

Those allegations have led to a federal investigation of Stern’s dealings with Burkle for possible extortion and to his suspension from the Post.

After remaining mostly silent since the New York Daily News published transcripts of secretly videotaped meetings between Stern and Burkle, the reporter gave numerous interviews from his country home in the Catskills arguing he was a casualty in Burkle’s attempts to damage the Post.

Stern claimed that the batch of transcripts released so far, primarily via the Daily News, have been taken out of context — including a portion where Stern asked for “$100,000 to get going and month to month, $10,000.”

Stern said that rather than a payoff for better treatment in Page Six, the deal he was discussing would have been an investment in his clothing line, Skull & Bones, and a job as a media consultant to Burkle — a gig that would have allowed him to leave the Post.

Stern said he thought at the time of Burkle, “This guy is going to do big things, and I can be a part of that, and it would be a career move.”

Burkle spokesman Michael Sitrick did not return a call requesting comment. But he did issue a statement on behalf of Burkle refuting Stern’s version of events. “Mr. Stern’s recharacterization of events are just that,” Sitrick said.

“The tapes show that Mr. Burkle made it very clear he had no interest in investing in Mr. Stern’s clothing company. They also show that Mr. Burkle never had any interest in Mr. Stern serving as a so-called media or any other consultant. As we have said earlier, the characterization by the New York Daily News and the New York Times of what is on the tapes is accurate.”

But Stern also acknowledges that keeping negative items out of Page Six was also discussed. He said he told Burkle, “What your problem is is you’re this secret guy, this mysterious figure. If I don’t know you, I can’t make that call (to Page Six editors).”

Stern added, “I think it was a lack of judgment on my part to combine the discussions on the clothing company with the business about a media strategy.”

Stern claimed that he was merely a pawn in a plot by Burkle to hurt the Gotham tabloid.

“He was really out to destroy the Post,” Stern said on Monday. “He had this real complex that the Post had been out to get him, even though I had told him that wasn’t the case.”

Burkle, who made his fortune in the grocery business, has been reportedly mulling several media investments. He already has backed Current TV, the cable net launched by former vice president Al Gore. Burkle has also emerged as a bidder for 12 Knight-Ridder newspapers put on the block as part of the chain’s merger with McClatchy.

Stern said that he and Burkle discussed other possible media ventures, including relaunching Radar magazine, or purchasing the New York Observer.

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