A billionaire tech mogul rumored to be behind Hulk Hogan's high-profile lawsuit against Gawker has admitted he bankrolled the case, telling The New York Times Wednesday that he wanted to put the gossip website out of business.
According to the Times interview, PayPal founder Peter Thiel quietly put $10 million into funding lawyers to find people Gawker had written about and plan cases against them.
A Florida jury awarded $140 million to Hogan in March in a verdict against Gawker, which had posted a video of him having sex with his then-best friend's wife. The case threatens to put Gawker and its sister websites, like Deadspin and Jezebel, out of business.
This week, rumors swirled that Thiel paid for the case, with reports in Forbes and the Times citing anonymous sources that the billionaire paid for the suit. They also noted that Hogan's legal team decided not to file a claim that would trigger a payout from Gawker's legal insurance, which they said struck legal observers as odd.
"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," Thiel said in the interview with columnist Aaron Ross Sorkin, which was posted online Wednesday night.
Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, was outed as gay by a Gawker-owned website in 2007, and the Gawker empire has run a number of stories skewering Facebook; he still sits on the social network's board.
"The way I’ve thought about this is that Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully. In a way, if I didn’t think Gawker was unique, I wouldn’t have done any of this," Thiel told the Times.
Thiel did not release any other public statements Wednesday night.
Hogan's lawyers wouldn't comment on the Thiel story earlier Wednesday for The Associated Press, before Thiel spoke publicly.
Gawker reacted to the initial reports by saying: "There are very serious questions about whether Hulk Hogan financially benefited, and this case is far from over."
Legal experts say there is nothing illegal — or even unethical — about someone financing a lawsuit. There are entire companies that invest in contingency claims, usually in product liability, personal injury, patent infringement and copyright cases. It is called "litigation financing."
But a billionaire doing it out of what may be spite? That's a little different, experts say.
"As much as this is not at all illegal or unethical, it just smells and feels wrong," said Scott Greenfield, a New York lawyer who is managing editor of Fault Lines, an online legal magazine. "When a rich guy can basically afford to bring down a media outlet, that has horrible social ramifications, even if the particular outfit is one that everybody hates, like Gawker."