Two young Forbes reporters have identified Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel as the one who bankrolled Hulk Hogan‘s lawsuit against Gawker Media, but now the mystery pivots from the the identity of the billionaire to how Forbes found out.
Gawker founder Nick Denton had previously expressed a hunch that the wrestler’s sex tape case was “linked to Silicon Valley,” and Forbes reporter Matt Drange said the key to confirming Denton’s suspicions was a lucky tip.
“There were rumors swirling around, and we got a tip that one or more prominent Silicon Valley names were tied to the Gawker case behind the scenes,” Drange told TheWrap on Wednesday. “I’ve been working with my co-reporter Ryan Mac since then to confirm that, and yesterday we confirmed it was Peter Thiel.”
The Forbes’ duo cites “people familiar with the situation who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity,” as the primary sources for the report. “We are 100 percent confident in our sourcing; we wouldn’t have published the story otherwise,” Drange said. “We started working on the story about a month ago.”
But there are still gaps to be filled. The reporters wrote it’s “unclear” how Thiel, a delegate for Donald Trump who co-founded PayPal, got involved with Hogan and his Los Angeles-based attorney, Charles Harder.
Hogan won a stunning $140 million verdict against Nick Denton‘s Gawker Media in a defamation lawsuit earlier this year over the publication of segments of a sex tape featuring Hogan having sex with a friend’s wife.
The former wrestler stubbornly declined to settle the case despite multiple attempts to do so by Denton.
Harder stands to earn huge fees from the case, but it’s small potatoes to an eccentric billionaire with a grudge. Harder is also representing Ashley Terrill and Shiva Ayyadurai, who are both also suing Gawker, according to CNN.
Harder recently told the New York Times, “I do not discuss the finances of my clients, including any financial arrangements they have with my firm.”
A spokesperson for Thiel declined to comment to Forbes for their story.
First Amendment expert Peter Scheer told Forbes that cases like this “can have a chilling effect on the rest of the media industry” because “they may encourage other wealthy individuals to back litigation against media companies that run unflattering stories about them.”
According to Forbes, “It is not illegal for an outside entity to help fund another party’s lawsuit, and the practice, known as third-party litigation funding, has become increasingly common in the U.S. Typically, the outside party negotiates for a defined share of any proceeds from the suit.”
Thiel’s enmity toward Gawker goes back at least to 2007, when the site posted a story titled, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” before the billionaire had publicly come out of the closet.
Two years later, Thiel called Gawker Media’s Valleywag blog the “Silicon Valley Equivalent of Al Queda.”
In response to the Forbes report, Gawker Media issued the following statement on Wednesday: “According to these reports, a board member of Facebook and a major funder of The Committee to Protect Journalists has been secretly funding a legal campaign against our journalists. We trust the appeals court will correct the outsized Florida jury verdict and reaffirm the law that protects a free and critical press, which is more embattled and important than ever.”