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In a federal bankruptcy court filing on Wednesday, lawyers for venture capitalist Peter Thiel objected to the ongoing sale process of Gawker.com, arguing that the billionaire has been unfairly excluded from bidding for the assets of the defunct news website.
The filing, which comes more than a year after the revelation that Thiel helped finance a clandestine legal war to destroy Gawker.com’s parent company, Gawker Media, lays the groundwork for the Facebook board member’s possible bid for the dormant website. While its sister sites were sold to Univision in August 2016 for $135 million following Gawker Media’s bankruptcy, a bankruptcy plan administrator has not been able to find a buyer for Gawker.com. Whoever ends up buying the site will also buy its archives, which are still up, and will have the right to do with them what they want, including delete them.
In the filing, Thiel’s lawyers allege that he was prevented from receiving information in regard to a potential bid for Gawker.com by plan administrator William Holden and his counsel, Gregg Galardi, following a Wall Street Journal story in October that said Holden and Galardi had started to market the website to potential buyers. Holden and Galardi have been “maintaining selective secrecy over that process,” according to Thiel’s lawyers from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.
“In light of the Plan Administrator's refusal to allow Mr. Thiel to participate in the sale process, Mr. Thiel's counsel requested that the Plan Administrator agree to pause the ongoing sale process so that a sale of the assets is not consummated until the issues concerning the Plan Administrator's blockade of Mr. Thiel as a bidder are resolved,” the filing reads.
A spokesperson for Thiel declined to comment. Holden and Galardi did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The sale of Gawker.com’s assets — including its domain name, social media channels, and 14-year archive — is one of the last chapters of a saga that began with former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit and resulted in Gawker Media’s bankruptcy. In May 2016, Forbes revealed that Thiel, motivated in part by a 2007 Gawker story about his sexuality, had spent millions of dollars funding Hogan’s legal challenge.
Unable to pay the $140 million verdict awarded to Hogan by a Florida jury, Gawker Media filed for bankruptcy and sold most of its sites to Univision last year. Since then, Gawker’s estate administrator and lawyers have been in and out of federal bankruptcy court in New York, where they’ve ironed out provisions from the sale of Gawker’s assets and sought to open legal discovery into Thiel for his role in aiding Hogan’s lawsuit. The Wall Street Journal reported that Holden has been exploring the sale of Gawker.com since July, and that he recently marketed the site’s potential legal claims against Thiel as part of its appeal.
The marketing of those claims is at the center of Thiel's complaint, in which his lawyers argue that Holden should not be able to conduct a sale of those claims and ask that the court drop a motion that allows for discovery to move forward. Thiel's representatives also said that they contacted those administrating the sale of Gawker.com last month "to express Mr. Thiel's interest in participating in the sale process," but that they had been rebuffed and then ignored.
"By wrongly excluding Mr. Thiel, the most able and logical purchaser, from the sale process on specious grounds ... the Plan Administrator will only depress the value to be achieved in any sale," the billionaire's lawyers argue.
While rumors had been floating in media circles that Thiel could hypothetically buy Gawker.com and remove its contents from the web, the billionaire has never publicly addressed whether he was interested in the site’s assets. Prior to Gawker Media’s bankruptcy and its loss in the Hogan trial, a banker, who claimed to have the back of at least one Silicon Valley power player, had called former Gawker Media employees around January 2016 to discuss the possible buyout of the company, according to Forbes.
Gawker Media founder Nick Denton asked the question in an open letter to Thiel in May 2016. “Is your goal to bankrupt, buy, or wound Gawker Media?” he wrote. “If you were to own the company after a final judgment in the Hogan case, what would your editorial strategy be?”
Thiel never responded publicly, though he reportedly met Denton in an off-the-record meeting in San Francisco that summer.
Some have expressed interest in buying Gawker.com, according to a source familiar with the situation, but legal questions — and threats — remain over the content in its archives. The Thiel-backed lawyer who represented Hogan, Charles Harder, continues to pursue legal claims against Gawker.com’s sister sites, which are now owned by Univision. And while Gawker Media’s former employees are indemnified from future litigation in regard to their old work at the company, any deal for Gawker.com will unlikely be able to protect the buyer from any possible future litigation.
“It would be the responsible thing to do for a new buyer to remove articles from Gawker.com that violate defamation laws, privacy laws, or journalism ethics (Google “SPJ Code of Ethics”),” Harder said to Wall Street Journal, referring to the Society of Professional Journalists. “Such articles never should have been published in the first place, and if they were to be removed now, the public, and journalism, would benefit.”
Thiel may be interested in buying Gawker.com to stem any possible legal threats against him or remove content. A 2007 story stating that Thiel is gay still remains online.
“Part of my thought was, again, they were a singularly sociopathic bully,” Thiel said in October 2016, one of the few times he’s spoken publicly about his decision to fund the suit.
Since then, the billionaire has hosted a dinner for Hogan at his home in Los Angeles and given an interview to The New York Times where he spoke a little more about his backing of Hogan.
“It basically stands for the narrow proposition that you should not publish a sex tape,” Thiel said. “I think that’s an insult to journalists to suggest that’s journalism now. Transparency is good, but at some point it can go in this very toxic direction.”
His spokesperson would not say if he’s interested in buying Gawker.com.