THE FBI is poking around the celebrity magazine world on the West Coast, investigating allegations of kickbacks and pay-for-play schemes, according to a source who was contacted by investigators.
The source was told that the probe, which appears to be at a preliminary stage, involved "paparazzi and In Touch" magazine.
The source was contacted by an agent named Dennis Webster in the FBI's Los Angeles office. Webster had not returned calls to Media Ink by presstime.
Specifics about what the feds are looking into remain murky, but people at the celebrity magazines have been burning up the lines in recent days since a story about the FBI probe was posted Wednesday on the complex.com Web site and picked up by gawker.com and jossip.com.
However, the source said that West Coast legal circles have been buzzing that Hollywood stars who have long felt they were being harassed by the paparazzi were perhaps pushing the feds to act.
Stars have long been frustrated that local law enforcement has been unable to thwart the paparazzi unless they either pose a real threat to someone or are trespassing on private property.
At the heart of the FBI's probe is whether an editor at In Touch received kickbacks from a photo agency that works with the magazine in exchange for doling out plumb assignments to the agency, the source told Media Ink.
If the unnamed editor took payments and didn't report it as income, it could be a matter of tax evasion.
The yet-to-be-identified photo agency could also run afoul of federal regulations if it was not properly reporting cash payments to individuals.
The source said that one agency had garnered $80,000 in assignments from In Touch without ever getting a photo into the magazine.
The speculation is that the agency was kicking money back to an editor who continued to dole out the plumb assignments.
Complex.com said the focus of the investigation involved selections of covers, but other sources said that seemed far-fetched.
A spokeswoman for In Touch said, "It doesn't make sense. All photos are selected in New Jersey. We have not been contacted by the FBI."
The Hollywood scene is generally regarded as a tricky place to be a journalist, with talk of kickbacks and under-the-table payments constantly circulating.
While unethical, it is often tough to say when it crosses the line into illegality.
But as one source who was chatting about the scandal offered, "It would have to be a lot of money over a long period of time to get the FBI interested."
It remains to be seen if the FBI inquiry will yield any fruit. So far, however, it has stirred up the celebrity and gossip reporting world, stretching from Hollywood to London's Fleet Street.