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Aspen’s Tangled Summer Saga: The Wealthy Developer vs. the Local Paper

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ASPEN, Colo. — Summers in Aspen are often a breezy idyll of sunny hikes and ice-cream socials, a season when wealthy tourists fly in to attend jazz festivals and take in mountain views from their $1,000-a-night hotel rooms.

But, recently, a tangled saga of wealth and the free press has grow to be Aspen’s summer obsession. It erupted after a wealthy real-estate developer sued The Aspen Times, the town’s oldest newspaper, for libel last spring, saying that the paper defamed him and falsely referred to him as a Russian oligarch within the charged days after Russia invaded Ukraine.

A lawsuit by a robust out-of-town developer may need been big news for the 140-year-old Aspen Times. The paper is a beloved institution that has chronicled scandals and squabbles from Aspen’s silver-mining days through its transformation right into a gilded skiing and cultural mecca within the Rockies.

But former staff members say the paper’s corporate owners, a West Virginia-based newspaper chain, didn’t allow The Aspen Times to write down concerning the libel lawsuit and blocked other pieces concerning the developer, Vladislav Doronin, from running because the two sides negotiated a settlement. The lawsuit was settled in May.

The Aspen Times’s publisher and company leaders say they’ve not censored any coverage. However the episode demoralized the newsroom and brought criticism around Aspen that the paper’s owners had been cowed by a developer. One editor quit. One other editor was fired after running opinion columns about what happened.

In Aspen, the dispute has left residents and officials asking whether local journalism could still tell the reality fearlessly and independently in a town with such outsize gaps in wealth, where a median home costs nearly $3 million, small shops are being supplanted by the likes of Gucci and Dior and native employees are being pushed out.

“If we lose that, it looks like there’s nothing left for us,” said Roger Marolt, a longtime columnist who left The Aspen Times.

On Wednesday, The Aspen Times provided a solution to that criticism by publishing a long-delayed story that delved into the funds of the developer who had sued the paper. The article, based on public records and court documents, raised questions on the developer’s statements that he had stopped doing business in Russia in 2014.

The entire story began in early March, when a veteran reporter for The Aspen Times doing routine checks of county real-estate filings stumbled across a blockbuster: Mr. Doronin had quietly snapped up a hotly contested acre of land at the bottom of the Aspen ski mountain through his Miami-based firm, the OKO Group.

Even in a town with eye-watering property values, people were stunned by the worth. Mr. Doronin paid $76 million, greater than seven times the $10 million that the property had sold for lower than a 12 months earlier when a gaggle of local developers bought it from the Aspen Skiing Company, in line with property records.

The property is a component of an ambitious effort to construct a latest luxury hotel and lodge, ski lift and ski museum that voters narrowly approved after a divisive referendum.

The team of local developers had a public face in Jeff Gorsuch, a second cousin of the Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. The team had spent years working up plans and studies and went door to door to earn voters’ support. Aspen residents and leaders said they were shocked to read within the local paper that the developers had sold.

In an interview, Mr. Gorsuch said the sale had been a business decision. “That’s the best way the world works,” he said, adding that he retained high hopes for the property’s future: “I still think it’s going to be great.”

Almost immediately, residents around Aspen began asking concerning the deal and the brand new owner, Mr. Doronin.

In response to court documents, Mr. Doronin was born in what was then Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and renounced his Soviet citizenship after leaving the Soviet Union in 1985. He’s a Swedish citizen who lives in Switzerland and has never held Russian citizenship, his lawyers say.

In 1993, Mr. Doronin founded a real-estate development company in Russia that built dozens of residential, retail and office buildings in Moscow, in line with court records. Within the libel grievance against The Aspen Times, Mr. Doronin’s lawyers said he had earned his money legitimately, freed from bribery or corruption, and had no affiliation with President Vladimir V. Putin.

After the Russian invasion, Mr. Doronin issued an announcement on LinkedIn to denounce “the aggression of Russia on Ukraine and fervently wish for peace.”

In an email, Mr. Doronin said that Aspen’s “special energy” had drawn him to search for investment and development opportunities there after years of visits to ski and attend summer cultural events. He said he was planning to construct a hotel on the property and would travel to Aspen to satisfy with local officials and others.

He said he sued the paper in April “to handle factual inaccuracies that were having a negative impact.”

Within the libel grievance, Mr. Doronin accused the paper of stoking anti-Russian sentiment and making “misplaced Russophobic attacks” against him. He objected to articles referring to him as an “oligarch” and a letter to the editor that suggested he was laundering money through Aspen real estate — all unfaithful statements, his lawyers said.

Rick Carroll, the Aspen Times reporter who discovered Mr. Doronin’s land purchase, was also among the many first to note the libel lawsuit in public records. He spotted it even before the paper’s owners had been served, in line with former staff members.

It was one other big scoop, only now, The Aspen Times was on the uncomfortable center.

The Aspen Times is one in all several resort-town newspapers that were bought up last December by Ogden Newspapers, a family-run company that owns greater than 50 newspapers across the country. The chief executive, Bob Nutting, also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Officials with Ogden Newspapers decided to not cover the lawsuit while the 2 sides sought a settlement. Two former editors say that Ogden also declined to run a news article and two opinion columns related to Mr. Doronin.

Eventually, The Aspen Each day News broke the news that its competitor had been sued. There was not a public peep from The Aspen Times until after the lawsuit was settled in May.

Under the settlement agreement, the paper made what an Ogden official described as “small edits” to 2 articles. It removed a letter to the editor and agreed to make a good-faith effort to hunt comment from Mr. Doronin on future articles.

One headline was modified from “Oligarch or not, latest Aspen investor has Russian ties” to “Latest Aspen investor has luxury hotelier connections.” An editor’s note now on the article says it had not met the paper’s standards for “accuracy, fairness and objectivity.”

The paper’s Aspen-based publisher, Allison Pattillo, disputed criticism that the paper had been muzzled.

While The Aspen Times didn’t cover the lawsuit against itself, she said, there have been no restrictions against further articles about Mr. Doronin or the land deal. She said the libel lawsuit had “zero effect on our coverage.”

“The notion that we were bullied by Doronin or that Doronin has any input in our newsroom is ludicrous,” Ms. Pattillo said in an email. “We’ve got not and never will act to suppress the reality.”

Some former staff members say the paper’s managers quashed mentions of Mr. Doronin after he sued. When David Krause, a former editor, emailed management in April to debate an article digging into Mr. Doronin’s business connections, an Ogden Newspapers executive replied, “No reporting on these matters presently.”

The aftermath led to a newsroom exodus and rattled public confidence within the newspaper, in line with interviews with greater than a dozen local journalists, officials and Aspen residents. The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit powerhouse that puts on the annual summer Ideas Festival, said it had “taken a pause” in its promoting in The Aspen Times for now.

“People have lost faith,” said Marie Kelly, 72, who walks day by day from her one-room rental in an old ski chalet to select up a replica. “They didn’t emulate the Aspen attitude, which is: We’re going to place it on the market, good or bad.”

Mr. Krause left his job because the paper’s editor in May, citing a health scare and conflicts with the paper’s ownership.

His substitute, Andrew Travers, a respected local journalist, made restoring public trust his first priority. To that end, he decided to run two columns that had gone unpublished after the lawsuit was filed in addition to a string of internal emails that showed the tumult contained in the paper.

Mr. Travers said he discussed his plans together with his publisher, Ms. Pattillo, before he ran the pieces in June. But hours after they were published, he said, he was called into a gathering and fired by an Ogden official. He said he felt blindsided.

“I’d worked through the system to do the suitable thing for the paper and the general public interest,” he said. “We were going to reckon with this. It was going to be a black eye, but we were going to maneuver forward. Clearly, I used to be flawed.”

Officials with Ogden Newspapers declined to debate Mr. Travers’s firing, calling it an internal human-resources issue.

Officials in Pitkin County, upset on the turmoil, recently voted to designate Aspen’s younger, locally owned newspaper, The Aspen Each day News, because the official “paper of record” that publishes all the county’s legal notices. A handful of other advertisers have pulled back.

In June, 18 current and former elected officials signed an open letter saying that they had lost confidence in Ogden Newspapers’ leadership of the paper and raised the concept of boycotting the paper or refusing to talk with Aspen Times reporters. The letter brought its own blowback, with Ms. Pattillo, the publisher, calling it “actual censorship.”

Today, the paper is right down to only one reporter. Mr. Travers, the fired editor, is searching for one other job that might support his young family.

This week, The Aspen Times published a column by its latest editor, who said he hoped to rebuild the staff and “rise from the ashes.” Two days later, it posted its article investigating Mr. Doronin’s funds. The byline was Rick Carroll, the reporter who had broken the story in the primary place.

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