Big winner from Fox’s $787.5m settlement is a PE firm

The biggest winner from Fox News’ $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems Inc. is a New York private equity firm that’s walking away with a return on its investment of more than 1,500%.

Staple Street Capital LLC acquired a roughly 76% stake in the voting technology company in 2018 for $38.8 million, unaware that Denver-based Dominion would become a household name within just a few years for all the wrong reasons — falsely accused by former President Donald Trump and his allies for rigging the 2020 election in favor of Joe Biden.

Dominion sued Fox for defamation, seeking $1.6 billion in damages, but settled for about half that amount Tuesday, just as opening statements were about to be presented at trial. During pre-trial exchange of evidence, Fox uncovered what turned out to be a prescient text message a former employee sent to Dan Franklin, a vice president at Staple Street, commenting on the Dominion lawsuit.

“Would be pretty unreal if you guys like 20x’ed your Dominion investment with these lawsuits,” said the message, which was cited in a court filing.

The estimate was pretty close. Staple Street’s share of the settlement, assuming it had made no additional equity investments since 2018, would be $598.5 million, or 1,542% more than it paid for its stake in the company. According to its website, Staple Street has about $900 million under management.

“It’s not every day that an investment fund finds itself at the center of this type of dispute,” Staple Street co-founder Hootan Yaghoobzadeh said at a press conference Tuesday where the settlement was announced. “For us this case has always been about exposing the truth and holding those who knowingly spread lies accountable.”

Yaghoobzadeh founded Staple Street in 2010 with fellow Harvard Business School graduate Stephen D. Owens, according to the firm’s website. Owens was previously a managing director at the Carlyle Group, where he focused on US buyouts. Prior to that he worked at Lehman Brothers in New York and Hong Kong, focusing on merchant banking and M&A transactions, according to a biography on Staple Street’s website. Yaghoobzadeh was a senior vice president at Cerberus Capital Management, focusing on distressed private equity and special-situation investments. He was also part of Carlyle’s US buyout team.

Fox said it acknowledged the court’s previous rulings that “certain claims” about Dominion were false. Trump’s allies had flooded the conservative airwaves with claims that Dominion used corrupt software and foreign hackers to ensure Trump lost the 2020 election.

Fox pointed to Dominion’s ownership by a private equity company to push its claim that the damages were inflated, arguing in recent months that the suit was “nothing more than a money grab to satisfy Staple Street.”

Fox had argued strenuously that Dominion’s damages were were “wildly inflated” and “outrageous,” in part because they were based on an unrealistic valuation for the company. The network said in a March court filing that documents it uncovered showed Dominion was independently valued in September 2020 at $238.5 million, far lower than the $741.2 million estimate used by the company’s experts to calculate damages.

“To think that Dominion grew by nearly ten times over that period in a highly competitive and regulated market is fanciful,” Fox said in a court filing.

Staple Street may have more paydays ahead. Dominion still has pending suits against other conservative media outlets NewsMax and One America News Network, as well as former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and lawyer Sydney Powell, who both falsely claimed Dominion’s voting machines were rigged.

Staple Street’s investments have included the Six Flags theme park operator and companies specializing in products and services even more obscure than voting machines: dental support services, chemicals for flavors and fragrances, distribution of dormant flower bulbs, metal assemblies for aerospace and defense, and “aftermarket life cycle solutions for electronic equipment.”


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