ST. PETERSBURG — Attorneys for Hulk Hogan say they don't know who leaked a transcript of their client's racist and homophobic remarks to tabloid reporters. But they have a theory, and they're looking at Gawker.
At a hearing Thursday, lawyers for the former professional wrestler asked Pinellas Judge Pamela Campbell to authorize an investigation into whether the news and gossip website's employees and lawyers communicated with reporters for the National Enquirer and RadarOnLine.com.
Both published excerpts last week of an 8-year-old recording in which Hogan — real name Terry Bollea — can reportedly be heard denigrating African-Americans in a racist rant.
The ties to Gawker stem from a lawsuit Bollea filed in 2012, in which he accused the media company of violating his right to privacy by publishing an excerpt of a sex tape involving him and Heather Cole, the ex-wife of radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. Bollea demanded $100 million in damages and the case was set for trial earlier this summer, until an appellate court's ruling postponed it. On Thursday, Campbell reset the trial for March 7.
As the case got under way, a judge ordered that the video recording, as well as transcripts of the encounter, remain sealed.
Despite that order, Bollea's tirade, recorded on the sex tape, made its way into the tabloids.
The Enquirer quoted him as saying: "I mean, I don't have double standards. I mean, I am a racist, to a point, f- - - - - - n- - - - --."
In a statement distributed later that day, Bollea apologized, saying there was no excuse for the "offensive language."
But the apology wasn't enough to prevent World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. from dropping him. Claiming the negative publicity had ruined their client's career, Bollea's lawyers said they're now focused on learning who was responsible for the leaks, which they say violate the court's protective order and are worthy of sanctions.
At Thursday's hearing, they suggested Gawker employees disseminated Bollea's comments earlier this month to shift the public's attention away from its own controversy over a widely criticized post outing a Conde Nast executive.
"We want the chance to prove they (Gawker) were directly involved in this, judge," said Bollea attorney Kenneth Turkel.
Holding a printed copy of a 2014 post titled "How to Leak to Gawker Anonymously," another defense attorney for Bollea said the Web story was proof that Gawker employees "know how to leak anonymously."
Since Bollea's remarks became public, Gawker has denied leaking the information. The Enquirer reporter has said he didn't learn about it from Gawker.
"This is the last refuge of a desperate litigant," said Gawker attorney Seth Berlin.
He said that for the past several years, transcripts of Bollea and Cole's encounter have been floating around Tampa and New York, suggesting that anyone with access to a copy could have given it to reporters. There have also been several investigations into the sex tape's production — Bollea maintains it was made illegally, and without his knowledge — widening the net of law enforcement and government officials who might have seen the recording or the transcript.
"There are, your honor, a long list of people who knew about Mr. Bollea's use of racist language long before Gawker learned about it," Berlin said.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.