ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan has an unlikely ally in his corner for his courtroom cage match with Gawker — a high-tech billionaire with a long-standing grudge against the news-and-gossip site.
The vendetta has set the stage for even more bad blood to pour out between Gawker CEO Nick Denton and the vengeful billionaire, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, as Gawker fights for its survival.
Two months after Hogan won a $140 million invasion-of-privacy verdict against Gawker for posting a sex tape of him, Thiel confirmed he covered the lawsuit’s costs after news reports identified him as the covert financier.
Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, was outed as gay by a Gawker-owned website. The same Gawker site, Valleywag, ran a number of stories skewering Facebook, which provided a big chuck of Thiel’s estimated $2.7 billion fortune.
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The 2007 article about him and other articles about his friends that he said “ruined people’s lives for no reason” spurred Thiel to help fund “victims” of Gawker, he told The New York Times .
“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” he told the newspaper Wednesday. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
Gawker CEO Nick Denton counterpunched Thursday with an open letter that pilloried Thiel as a “comic-book villain” and an example of the “unaccountable power of the billionaire class.”
“You show yourself as a thin-skinned billionaire who, despite all the success and public recognition that a person could dream of, seethes over criticism and plots behind the scenes to tie up his opponents in litigation he can afford better than they,” Denton wrote.
The damages facing Gawker threaten to destroy the company. As part of its contingency planning, Gawker has hired an investment banker to explore its options, including a possible sale.
During the Hogan trial, Gawker’s parent company, a collection of websites called Gawker Media, was estimated to be worth $83 million.
Thiel didn’t respond to The Associated Press’ requests for an interview.
In the Times interview, Thiel also said Hogan’s lawsuit is one of several against Gawker he has financially backed. Hogan’s attorney, Charles Harder, is also handling two separate lawsuits against Gawker, filed on behalf of Shiva Ayydurai and Ashley Terrill.
Ayydurai said Thiel isn’t involved in his lawsuit, but applauded him for backing Hogan. “More power to Peter Thiel,” Ayydurai said Thursday. “He is doing a public service. He is standing behind his principles, something few people in his position do.”
In a Wednesday court proceeding, Gawker’s attorneys asked the judge to allow them to seek evidence from the other side regarding Thiel’s supposed involvement. But the judge said no.
In his open letter, Denton vowed to use an appeal of the Hogan verdict to subject Thiel to a “dose of transparency.”
“However philanthropic your intention, and careful the planning, the details of your involvement will be gruesome,” Denton promised Thiel in his letter.
As an alternative to a court battle, Denton proposed a public debate for “a more constructive exchange.”
Hogan sued Gawker after it posted a 2007 video of him having sex with the wife of his best friend, Tampa radio personality Bubba The Love Sponge Clem. Hogan said Clem betrayed him by secretly videotaping him.
Liedtke reported from San Francisco.
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush .