Joe Francis's Secret War Against Gawker

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Left, Nick Denton, founder of Gawker, talks with his legal team before Hulk Hogan testifies in court in St. Petersburg, Florida, during the March 2016 trial. Right, "Girls Gone Wild" founder Joe Francis arrives at the 2012 MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles on June 3, 2012. JOHN PENDYGRAFT/DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS

The plot to take down Gawker was like high-stakes celebrity Mad Libs. Let's review the basics: A Silicon Valley billionaire teamed up with an aging wrestling champ to win a major civil suit spawned by a post about a sex tape.

Weirdest of all, it worked: Gawker.com is done; Nick Denton, its former managing editor, is bankrupt; and Hulk Hogan's been awarded $140 million in damages, pending appeal. By any account, Gawker's enemies are very pleased.

But there was another disgruntled celebrity acting in secret to avenge a personal grudge and help destroy Gawker. That person, Newsweek has confirmed, was Joe Francis, the millionaire softcore porn mogul best known for founding the Girls Gone Wild franchise. In several interviews with Newsweek during the last week of August, Francis boasted about his small but previously unknown role using language better suited to an action movie voice-over.

"It was really a coordinated effort," Francis said. "It was an all-out assault. And we got him. It was like Osama Bin Laden. I liken this operation to killing Osama bin Laden. And we did—we killed the most reckless, dangerous scumbag in the world: Nick Denton.

"Now, for the burial at sea, I'd like to see that too," Francis adds.

Denton, though not the most dangerous scumbag in the world, did make a lot of enemies in his capacity as founder of a gossip blog widely loathed by the celebrity class. Gawker enraged Lena Dunham, outed Peter Thiel and Shepard Smith, referred to Zoe Saldana's infant twins as "hipster scum" and—a personal favorite—once described Ted Cruz as a "noted skin-haver." The site's frequently barbed coverage of the rich and famous opened it up to lawsuits and made it something of a villain in celebrity circles. "They were really good at making enemies," says Nik Richie, the blogger who runs the gossip site TheDirty.com from the West Coast.

Which leads us to Joe Francis. Back in 2009, the porno entrepreneur threatened to sue Gawker for calling him a rapist in a post that awarded him the title of Douche of the Decade. (Francis had been accused of rape in a Los Angeles Times profile but never convicted in a court setting. Tax evasion and bribery, sure, but not rape.) In an email to Gawker titled "Hey Nick, Your Fucked" [sic], Francis claimed that he had lost a $10 million deal because of Gawker's post and wrote, "I am going to wipe you off the grid!!!!" (He also included a shirtless photo of himself, for some reason.) Wipe Gawker off the grid? It seemed pretty ludicrous in 2009.

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Hulk Hogan sits in court during his trial against Gawker Media in St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 17. Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times/Pool via Reuters

Anyway, Francis had his attorney send a letter of his own (presumably sans shirtless photo), Gawker amended "rapist" to "alleged rapist," the gossip blog moved on, Francis did not. His beef with Gawker deepened when they continued targeting him. "Oh my God, they wrote about me a ton," he recalls. When Gawker's sister blog Jezebel mocked his girlfriend's pregnancy announcement years later, he was infuriated. "They called my daughters 'genetically modified,'" he protests. "Number one, genetic modification is illegal. There are no genetically modified humans that I know of. But to, like, attack innocent little babies? It's just horrible."

Francis happened to be friendly with Hulk Hogan, whom he knows by his real name, Terry Bollea. The two met when Francis's career briefly crossed paths with WWE in the early 2000s. Several years later, when Hogan was going through a divorce, Francis introduced him to his attorney, David Houston, who wound up advising the wrestler in the privacy suit against Gawker. (Houston, Hogan's personal attorney, is not to be confused with Charles Harder, the Hollywood libel lawyer who was hired specifically for the case and, more recently, was hired by Roger Ailes to take on New York magazine for reporting on his ouster amid sexual harassment allegations.) Francis, meanwhile, was in and out of jail after being convicted of false imprisonment and assault charges in 2013.

As Francis tells it, he allied with Hulk Hogan and his lawyer to undermine Gawker in the months and years leading up to the high-profile trial. "I would call myself a peripheral player," he says, "who did a lot of handiwork."

Is Joe Francis for real? According to his lawyer, Francis's involvement in the litigation against Gawker was minor at best—barely worth a mention. According to Francis, "I'm the one who was the architect of the strategy." He clarifies: "The initial strategy."

The truth seems to be somewhere in the middle.

Here's what we do know: In 2012 or 2013, after Gawker published a clip from the now-infamous video of Hulk Hogan having sex with his best friend's wife, Francis took on a secret role: He worked behind the scenes to convince other sites to take down posts involving the sex tape. In a lengthy, late-night phone interview, Francis outlined his involvement. His storytelling was animated and fast, peppered with a maniacal laugh and vulgar asides—"Don't call me a fucking rapist, asshole. I have three sisters"—aimed at Denton.

"I worked the phones," Francis says. "I called in every favor I possibly could with every media outlet I knew so we had one clean shot. One clean bad actor. One clean target. So there would be no other person in that courtroom but Gawker."

Houston tells the story differently: He had Francis call Nik Richie because he knew the two were friends and he wanted Francis to "facilitate an introduction"—basically, to explain why the attorney would be contacting him. Houston's goal was to scrub his client's embarrassing sex tape from the Internet. But for Francis, the goal was to make Gawker's sin seem uniquely—and irredeemably—outrageous.

"If David had sent cease and desist letters, those would have been admissible," Francis says. "These had to be very, very quiet under-the-table deals with all these people who were my personal relationships." Otherwise, it would have weakened the case against Gawker. "Nick Denton would have been able to walk into the court and say, 'Everybody else did it.'" (In an email, Denton stated that he knew Francis and Hogan shared a lawyer, but wasn't aware of Francis's involvement. He declined to comment any further. A.J. Daulerio, the former Gawker editor who published the sex tape, said he knew nothing about it.)

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Gawker founder Nick Denton, left, speaks during a "Gossip" panel discussion hosted by Standard Talks at the Standard High Line Room in New York City on June 18, 2012. Matteo Prandoni/BFAnyc/Sipa USA

Richie, a longtime Francis pal who runs TheDirty.com, confirms that Francis called asking him to take down the grainy still photographs from the sex tape. According to his records, two such posts were removed on May 8, 2013—shortly after Gawker refused a judge's order to take down the video. Richie didn't think it was motivated by a vendetta. "I think he was just trying to help his lawyer," Richie says. After he chatted with Hogan himself, he agreed to remove the posts. It didn't seem worth going to war over. "I don't know what Joe's personal thing is with Gawker," he says. "No one really likes Gawker. Us West Coast people, we just don't get how they think they have all the power out there."

Francis says he went so far as to have TheDirty.com erase the metadata to clear evidence of the sex tape post. Richie can't remember whether that happened. "The only reason I do find it strange is because we were the ones who broke the story," Richie says, "and it looks like Gawker took the fall. But we were cooperative, so it's different." True to its name, The Dirty showed screenshots from the sex tape months before Gawker ran with it. But the site's involvement was lost during the trial. "Nobody's contacted me," Richie says. "Not even from Gawker's side." Strange, right? "A hundred percent," he admits.

Francis says he rang up other gossip rags to do the Hulk's bidding. "At every fucking turn, this took so much effort to do. Everybody wanted to jump onto this story. And I said, jump out of this story." He continues, "I sat on the phone for days, begging friends in the media: 'Pull it fucking down.' And calling off favors." For who? "TMZ, all these guys. I traded information, too. Paid them off. Whatever I could do." Paid them off? "Not me personally. But some of them were paid off."

A few days later, when asked to clarify the tidbit about the alleged payments, Francis backtracked:

Did you ask TMZ to take down the sex tape as well?
No comment.

And did any of these sites get paid off?
Nope.

No, they did not get paid off?
Not to the best of my knowledge.

He wouldn't name other sites. TMZ denies any involvement. An email query asking whether the site amended its sex tape coverage on Francis's orders drew a hasty rebuke from a spokesperson: "No and you are completely off base." A subsequent email was more specific: "Of course we have reported on the existence of the sex tape. However, to reiterate, we have never altered these reports at the request of Joe Francis or Hulk Hogan's lawyers." TMZ ignored follow-up emails asking for clarification.

David Houston says he contacted more than 80 sites after the sex tape broke. "All agreed to remove the offending content or not publish."

Only Gawker went to trial. Only Gawker took the fall.

Strangely, Francis seems to give himself credit for securing Hogan's secret benefactor—the billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel—though there is scant evidence to support this narrative. "I am the reason that [Hogan] got the benefactor […] and I am the one who arranged for his lawyers," Francis claimed in his first email to Newsweek, in response to a request for comment on Gawker's demise. "I have known about this for years and never talked about it."

Thiel, who made a fortune as the co-founder of PayPal, has spent years plotting his revenge. He was outed publicly by Gawker in 2007. In subsequent years, the blog mocked his business ventures and his rather bewildering comments on women's suffrage. So he bankrolled its collapse.

Francis says that he met Thiel when he was neighbors with Elon Musk. Nursing a grudge of his own, "Peter Thiel was interested in backing anyone he could," Francis says. "But [he was] also looking for the right opportunity.… His lawyers reached out to my lawyers." The Hogan suit provided Thiel with the opportunity he craved: He paid millions in legal fees to finance the lawsuit. Thiel defended this frostily served revenge in a New York Times interview, describing his funding as being "less about revenge and more about specific deterrence" aimed at a "terrible bully." (Francis, to his credit, doesn't bother with these PR-friendly euphemisms for revenge.)

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"Girls Gone Wild" founder Joe Francis arrives at the 2012 MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles, June 3, 2012. Danny Moloshok /Reuters

Thiel's decision to finance the case "was the ultimate," Francis claims. "That took an incredible amount off of all of us." Attorney David Houston contradicts this account: "It wasn't really that much of a turning point one way or another." It's not the only place his story diverges from his client's. Francis says he was having Houston threaten legal action against Gawker long before the Hogan lawsuit. Houston says he hadn't even heard of Gawker before this suit.

Observers have been more concerned about the long-term implications of Thiel's actions than the minutia of how it came about: What does it mean when a billionaire can use his fortune to destroy a publication he deems objectionable? Mother Jones faced a legal battle of its own against an embittered businessman with nearly limitless resources. And on Labor Day, news broke that ousted Fox News Chief Roger Ailes had enlisted Charles Harder, the lawyer who brought down Gawker, to take on New York magazine. (Harder repeatedly declined to comment on the record for this story.)

So where does Joe Francis fit into this? Perhaps nowhere. "To my knowledge Joe had nothing to do with that," says Houston. Meanwhile, Francis wouldn't elaborate on his relationship with Thiel. Thiel wouldn't talk to Newsweek. According to a person familiar to Peter Thiel who was not authorized to speak on record, Francis had no involvement with Thiel's support of the Hogan lawsuit whatsoever.

Joe Francis is probably overstating his contribution to Gawker's demise. His bravado is almost Trumpian. He says he devoted "millions of dollars [worth] of time" into the project but won't say how. He says people "way richer, way more powerful" than himself were involved but won't say who. He drops hints, innuendos. "I don't mean to be evasive," he says. "But it's not over until this fucker is dead and buried."

Joe Francis is famous for running his mouth. Swearwords pour out at a dazzling speed. After his 2013 conviction, he was quoted calling the jurors "retarded" and saying they "should be euthanized."

But during a brief, final phone conversation with Newsweek on August 31, he was uncharacteristically taciturn. He declined to comment on events he had colorfully recounted the previous week. He hesitated when asked if he would share some emails he'd mentioned earlier that would confirm his role in the Gawker case. "I don't know.… I don't want to ruin this thing," Francis said. "I don't want to hurt the judgment." (He feared a court might use this information as a basis to overturn the ruling, he explained.)

"The media has a way of destroying great things sometimes," he added. "You know that."

The infomercial smut tycoon sounded hurried. He was on his way out with his wife and kids. He offered to respond to some questions by email that night. He didn't reply to that email. Nor a second email. Nor a third follow-up email after that. Francis has stopped answering my phone calls.

The sudden secrecy is perhaps understandable. Francis regularly compared his efforts against Gawker to taking out Bin Laden. "I killed Osama bin Laden," he insists. "Or I was the CIA operative who assisted in the killing of Osama bin Laden." Or, perhaps, he's just somebody who has watched Zero Dark Thirty too many times.

Joe Francis's Secret War Against Gawker