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

ASPEN, Colo. Summer in Aspen is often a leisurely time of sunny hikes and ice cream exchanges, the season that wealthy tourists fly in to attend jazz festivals and soak up mountain views. non from their $1,000-a-night hotel room.

Lately, however, a mess of wealth and a free press has become Aspen’s summer obsession. It broke out after a wealthy real estate developer sued The Aspen Times, the town’s oldest newspaper, for defamation last spring, saying the paper had smeared him and called him out. he was a Russian oligarch in the days of the charge after Russia invaded Ukraine.

A lawsuit by a powerful suburban developer could be big news for the 140-year-old Aspen Times. The newspaper is a beloved institution that has chronicled the scandals and controversies from Aspen’s silver-mining days through transforming it into a gilded ski and cultural mecca in the Rockies.

But former employees say that the company owner of the newspaper, a West Virginia-based newspaper chain, did not allow The Aspen Times to write about the libel lawsuit and blocked other information about the developer, Vladislav Doronin, running as the two sides negotiate a settlement. . The lawsuit was settled in May.

The publisher of The Aspen Times and company leaders say they have not censored any reporting. But the episode demoralized the newsroom and sparked criticism around Aspen that the newspaper’s owner had been misled by a developer. An editor has retired. Another editor was fired after running opinion columns about what happened.

In Aspen, the dispute has led residents and officials to question whether the local press can speak the truth fearlessly and independently in such a large wealth gap town where a The average house costs nearly $3 million, small shops are being replaced by the likes of Gucci and Dior and local workers are being pushed out.

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

On Wednesday, The Aspen Times responded to that criticism by publishing a long-delayed story that goes into the developer’s finances, who sued the newspaper. The article, based on public records and court documents, calls into question the developer’s claim that he stopped doing business in Russia in 2014.

The whole story begins in early March, when a veteran reporter for The Aspen Times was periodically checking county real estate records when he stumbled upon a blockbuster: Mr. Doronin had quietly occupies an acre of hotly contested land at the foot of the Aspen ski run. through his Miami-based company, OKO Group.

Even in a town with attractive real estate values, people are stunned by the prices. Doronin paid $76 million, more than seven times the $10 million the property had sold less than a year earlier when a group of local developers bought it from the Aspen Ski Company, according to reports. property records.

The property is part of an ambitious effort to build a new luxury hotel and motel, ski lift and ski museum that voters narrowly approved after a controversial referendum. divide.

The group of local developers was publicly present with Jeff Gorsuch, the second cousin of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. The team spent years planning, researching and going door-to-door to gain voter support. Aspen residents and leaders said they were shocked to read in the local newspaper that the developers had sold.

In an interview, Mr. Gorsuch said the purchase was a business decision. “That’s how the world works,” he said, adding that he still holds high hopes for the future of real estate: “I still think it’s going to be great.”

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

According to court documents, Mr. Doronin was born in Leningrad, now St.Petersburg, and renounced his Soviet citizenship after leaving the Soviet Union in 1985. He is a Swedish citizen living in Switzerland and has never had Russian nationality, his lawyer said.

In 1993, Doronin founded a real estate development company in Russia, building dozens of residential, retail and office buildings in Moscow, according to court records. In the allegation filed against The Aspen Times, Doronin’s lawyers say he earned his money legally, was free from bribery or corruption, and had no ties to President Vladimir Putin.

After the Russian invasion, Mr. Doronin issued a statement on LinkedIn denouncing “Russian aggression towards Ukraine and fervent desire for peace”.

In an email, Mr. Doronin said that Aspen’s “exceptional energy” led him to seek investment and growth opportunities there after years of skiing and attending summer cultural events. He said there are plans to build a hotel on the site and will travel to Aspen to meet with local officials and others.

He said he sued the newspaper in April “to address factual inaccuracies that are having a negative impact.”

In his defamation complaint, Mr Doronin accused the newspaper of inciting anti-Russian sentiments and carrying out “Russophobic misplaced attacks” against him. He objected to articles that referred to him as an “oligarch” and a letter to the editor claiming he laundered money through the Aspen estate – all untrue statements , his lawyer said.

Rick Carroll, the Aspen Times reporter who discovered Mr. Doronin’s land purchase, was also one of the first to notice the defamation lawsuit in the public record. He discovered it even before the owner of the paper was served, according to former employees.

That’s another big scoop, only now, it’s The Aspen Times that’s in the spotlight.

Aspen Times is one of several resort town newspapers that have been acquired last December by Ogden Newspaper, a family-run company that owns more than 50 newspapers across the country. The CEO, Bob Nutting, also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Officials with the Ogden Newspaper decided not to cover the case while the two sides worked out a settlement. Two former editors said that Ogden also refused to run a newsletter and two opinion columns related to Mr. Doronin.

Finally, the Aspen Daily News reported that their competitor had been sued. There was no public view from The Aspen Times until the lawsuit was settled in May.

Under the settlement, the article made what an Ogden official described as “minor corrections” to the two articles. It deleted a letter to the editor and agreed to make a good faith effort to seek comment from Mr. Doronin on future articles.

One title was changed from “Oligarchy or not, the new Aspen investor has ties to Russia” to “New Aspen developer has connections to luxury hotels. A current editor’s note on the article said it did not meet the newspaper’s standards for “accuracy, fairness and objectivity”.

The newspaper’s Aspen-based publisher, Allison Pattillo, countered criticism that the paper was strangled.

Although The Aspen Times did not report on the lawsuit, she said there were no restrictions on further reports about Doronin or the land deal. She said the defamation lawsuit “didn’t affect our coverage.”

“The notion that we were bullied by Doronin or that Doronin had any input in our newsroom is ludicrous,” Ms. Pattillo said in an email. “We have not and will never act to stamp out the truth.”

Several former employees said that the newspaper’s managers shut down mentions of Mr. Doronin after he sued. When David Krause, a former editor, emailed management in April to discuss an in-depth article on Mr. Doronin’s business relationships, an Ogden Newspaper executive responded. : “There are no reports of these issues at this time.”

The consequences led to the newsroom’s departure and shook public confidence in the newspaper, according to interviews with more than a dozen local journalists, officials and Aspen residents. The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit that organizes the annual Summer Ideas Festival, says it has “paused” its ads in The Aspen Times for now.

Marie Kelly, 72, who walks every day from her rental room in an old bungalow to pick up a replica, said: “People have lost faith. “They’re not emulating Aspen’s point of view, which is: We’re going to get it out there, for better or worse.”

Mr. Krause leave his job as editor of the newspaper in May, citing health threats and conflicts with the newspaper’s ownership rights.

His replacement, Andrew Travers, a respected local journalist, made restoring public trust his top priority. In the end, he decided to run two columns that were left unpublished after the lawsuit was filed as well as an internal email sequence showing the turmoil inside the newspaper.

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

“I worked through the system to do the right thing for the newspaper and the public good,” he said. “We will take this into account. It will be a black eye, but we will move forward. Obviously, I was wrong.”

Ogden officials declined to discuss Mr Travers’ firing, calling it an internal staffing issue.

Pitkin County officials, upset by the turmoil, recently voted to designate Aspen’s younger local newspaper, The Aspen Daily News, as the official “record” of all announcements. county legal notice. A handful of other advertisers have backed out.

In June, 18 current and former elected officials signed an open letter stating that they had lost faith in the leadership of the Ogden newspaper and floated the idea of ​​boycotting the paper or refusing to speak to members of the Ogden newspaper. Aspen Times reporter. Ms. Pattillo, the publisher, called the letter “real censorship”.

Today, the newspaper is only for one reporter. Mr. Travers, the fired editor, is looking for another job that can support his young family.

This week, The Aspen Times published a column by its newest editor, who says he hopes to rebuild staff and “rise from the ashes. “Two days later, it published an article investigating Mr. Doronin’s finances. Next to it was Rick Carroll, the reporter who broke the story from the start.

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