In March, after a years-long case against Gawker Media, Hulk Hogan, whose legal name is Terry Bollea, was granted a $140 million jury award at the online media company's expense for its release of an infamous, decade-old sex tape starring the professional wrestler.
Gawker founder Nick Denton called the result "extraordinary," but as the company seeks a new trial or a reduction of those monetary damages according to CNNMoney, The New York Times is giving credence to speculation from Denton and others that the situation might be even more outlandish. Is the case, perhaps, not entirely one with Hogan, but with someone funding him? Denton says he thinks so, and he's wagging a finger at Silicon Valley, where he's come to suspect a CEO-type with an allergic response to tabloid-like scrutiny has led to the case against Gawker.
Denton once called this very idea — that an outsider was backing the case — "rather conspiracy-theory-like,” but after considering a number of further lawsuits brought against Gawker from the same Los Angeles-based lawyer, Charles J. Harder, who represents Hogan, Denton has been more inclined to believe it. One possible indicator that there's another party, either in addition to Hogan or else propping him up, is the degree to which Hogan's own personal life has been scrutinized in the courtroom. There's nothing Hogan hasn't had to address on the stand as part of this case, seeming to negate his purported goal of privacy.
Denton and the Times also invoke a specific legal tactic seemingly at Hogan's expense, one designed to inflict maximum financial devastation on Gawker. Hogan's legal team dropped a claim that would have required Gawker's insurance company to pay for its defense plus potential payouts — potentially foregoing rewards for Hogan, but leaving Gawker on the hook instead of its insurer.
“It’s a very unusual thing to do, because the insurance company would have deeper pockets than Gawker,” a risk management consultant explains to the Times. “I’ve never had a situation where the plaintiff intentionally took out the claim involving the insurance company.”
Denton's theory, specifically, is that in Hogan's corner crouches a so-far anonymous Silicon Valley proto-celebrity with the means to ruin Gawker and the will to do so. “My own personal hunch is that it’s linked to Silicon Valley, but that’s nothing really more than a hunch,” Denton said.
Why the Valley? “Silicon Valley coverage with coverage on Valleywag, and the coverage on Gawker and Gizmodo," said Denton, "I think that has been a change for them... If you’re a billionaire and you don’t like the coverage of you, and you don’t particularly want to embroil yourself any further in a public scandal, it’s a pretty smart, rational thing to fund other legal cases.”
"The answer may be entirely innocent,” Denton concluded of the question of whether or not another player, beyond Hogan, was behind the lawsuits. "I think in order for people to understand what’s going on here, what the stakes are, I think it’s important that it be out in public, or at least that he’d be asked the question in public."
So, conspiracy theorists with knowledge of SV bros: Who's got a finger in this pie?
Update: Forbes reports that anonymous sources familiar with the matter say Peter Thiel, a venture capital billionaire who is openly pro-Trump and according to the Hill will serve as his delegate, has been secretly funding the case against Gawker on behalf of Hogan. The paypal co-founder, whom Gawker seemed to out as gay in the piece "Peter Thiel is totally gay, people," called Gawker's now-defunct blog Valleywag "the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda" in a PEHub interview from 2009.
Refusing to dignify Thiel with mainstream recognition, Gawker's Denton told Forbes that he'd “heard that name.” Forbes is assuming that Thiel is the only outside financial backer involved in the case, practicing what is known as “third-party litigation funding,” which is a legal pastime.
Who do we think is bankrolling Hulk Hogan— Your Conscience (@tarintowers) May 24, 2016
“We write stories about powerful people in New York, but there are plenty of outlets writing stories about powerful people in New York,” Denton tells Forbes. “We write stories about powerful people in LA, but there are plenty of outlets writing stories about powerful people in LA. What’s unique about Gawker is that we’re an internet publication and the tech industry is of particular interest to us. There are powerful people in Silicon Valley and the power of Silicon Valley is a relatively new phenomenon.”
Peter Scheer, a first amendment lawyer, added that "Winning is the ultimate chilling effect, but if you can’t win the case, you at least want the editors to think twice before writing another critical story about you.”
Perhaps the mystery shouldn't have been one at all: As Denton wrote in the comments section of the aforementioned story on Thiel: "If Silicon Valley is the bastion of tolerance it likes to believe, and if the tech industry cares only about money, it's surprising that Thiel would have kept his personal life a secret from journalists and his closest colleagues, for so long. He was so paranoid that, when I was looking into the story, a year ago, I got a series of messages relaying the destruction that would rain down on me, and various innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, if a story ever ran."