Winfrey targeted in extortion scheme


CHICAGO - An Atlanta man has been charged with trying to extort $1.5 million from Oprah Winfrey over tapes of telephone calls between him and a Winfrey employee that he said would embarrass the popular U.S. talk show host, according to court documents and media reports on Saturday.

Keifer Bonvillain is charged in federal court trying to extort money by threatening to injure a person's reputation, according to court documents.

A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago does not identify Winfrey, but refers to an "Individual A," as "a public figure and the owner of a Chicago-based company."

The Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune on Saturday identified Individual A as Winfrey -- whose Harpo Studios is based in Chicago. They cited unidentified sources close to the investigation.

Neither Winfrey, who was in South Africa opening a $40 million school for girls she had paid for, nor her press representatives could be reached immediately for comment.

According to the complaint, filed on December 14, Bonvillain first wrote to his target in October and said an employee was saying "awful things" about the individual.

Bonvillain then wrote to the person's business on November 17 and said he had tapes of conversations with the employee that would be embarrassing, according to the complaint. The court documents did not disclose the content of the tapes.

A representative of Individual A contacted Bonvillain, who first said he was researching a book, then said he could sell the tapes to the tabloids and offered to sell them to Individual A's representative, according to the complaint.

On November 20, the representative wrote Bonvillain to say the tapes were illegally recorded and demanded they be handed over, according to federal prosecutors.

In December, a lawyer for Bonvillain said his client had been offered a lot of money and said if the representative "wanted this to go away, he would have to be prepared to put an offer on the table," the complaint said. It cited the representative as saying Individual A rejected the proposal and called the FBI.

The representative's conversations with Bonvillain were monitored by the FBI, and eventually he agreed to be paid $1.5 million for the tapes, which he was to turn over in the parking lot of an Atlanta hotel on December 15, the complaint said.

Bonvillain was arrested in Atlanta on December 15 and released on $20,000 bond. He was scheduled for a court hearing on Monday in Chicago. Bonvillain and his defense attorney could not be reached for comment.