ASPEN, Colo. — Summers in Aspen are usually a breezy idyll of sunny hikes and ice cream socials, a season when rich tourists fly in to attend jazz festivals and enjoy mountain views from their $1,000-a-person hotel rooms. night.
But lately, a tangled saga of wealth and the free press has become Aspen’s summer obsession. It erupted after a wealthy real estate developer sued The Aspen Times, the city’s oldest newspaper, for libel last spring, saying the paper defamed him and falsely referred to him as a Russian oligarch in the alleged days after Russia invaded Ukraine.
A lawsuit by a powerful out-of-town developer might have been big news for the 140-year-old Aspen Times. The paper is a beloved institution that has chronicled scandals and scandals from Aspen’s silver mining days through its transformation into a gilded skiing and cultural mecca in the Rockies.
But former employees say the paper’s corporate owners, a West Virginia-based newspaper chain, did not allow The Aspen Times to write about the libel suit and blocked other pieces about the developer, Vladislav Doronin, from running as the two sides negotiated a settlement. . The lawsuit was settled in May.
The Aspen Times’ publisher and company executives say they have not censored any coverage. But the episode demoralized the newsroom and brought criticism around Aspen that the newspaper’s owners had been cowed by a developer. An editor resigned. Another editor was fired after running opinion columns about what happened.
In Aspen, the controversy has residents and officials asking whether local journalism could still tell the truth fearlessly and independently in a city with such wide gaps in wealth, where the average home costs nearly $3 million, small shops are crowded out by, e.g. . Gucci and Dior and local workers are pushed out.
“If we lose that, it feels like there’s nothing left for us,” said Roger Marolt, a longtime columnist who left The Aspen Times.
On Wednesday, The Aspen Times responded to that criticism by publishing a long-delayed story that delved into the finances of the developer who had sued the paper. The article, based on public records and court documents, raised questions about the developer’s statements that he had stopped doing business in Russia in 2014.
The whole story began in early March, when a veteran reporter for The Aspen Times doing a routine check of county property records stumbled upon a blockbuster: Mr. Doronin had quietly snagged a highly contested acre of land at the base of the Aspen ski. mountain through his Miami-based company, OKO Group.
Even in a city with eye-watering real estate values, people were stunned by the price. Mr. Doronin paid $76 million, more than seven times the $10 million the property had sold for less than a year earlier, when a group of local developers bought it from the Aspen Skiing Company, according to property records.
The property is part of an ambitious effort to build a new 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, another cousin of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. The team had spent years preparing plans and studies and went door to door to get voters’ 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 sale had been a business decision. “That’s the way the world works,” he said, adding that he had high hopes for the property’s future: “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 what was then Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and renounced his Soviet citizenship after leaving the Soviet Union in 1985. He is a Swedish citizen who lives in Switzerland and has never held Russian citizenship. say his lawyers.
In 1993, Mr. Doronin a real estate development company in Russia that built dozens of residential, retail and office buildings in Moscow, according to court records. In the libel suit against The Aspen Times, Mr. Doronin’s lawyers said he had earned his money legally, free of bribery or corruption and had no ties to President Vladimir V. Putin.
After the Russian invasion, Mr. Doronin a statement on LinkedIn to condemn “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and fervent desire for peace.”
In an email, Mr. Doronin that Aspen’s “special energy” had drawn him to look for investment and development opportunities there after years of visiting to ski and attend cultural events in the summer. He said he planned to build a hotel on the property and would travel to Aspen to meet with local officials and others.
He said he sued the paper in April “to address factual inaccuracies that had a negative impact.”
In the libel complaint, Mr. Doronin newspaper for inciting anti-Russian sentiment and making “misplaced Russophobic attacks” against him. He objected to articles that referred to him as an “oligarch” and a letter to the editor that suggested he laundered money through Aspen properties — all untrue statements, his lawyers said.
Rick Carroll, the Aspen Times reporter who discovered Mr. Doronin’s land purchase, was also among the first to note the libel case in public records. He discovered it even before the newspaper’s owners had been served, according to former employees.
It was another big scoop, only now The Aspen Times was at the uncomfortable center.
The Aspen Times is one of several resort town newspapers purchased last December by Ogden Newspapers, a family-run company that owns more than 50 newspapers across the country. The CEO, Bob Nutting, also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Officials at Ogden Newspapers decided not to cover the lawsuit while the two sides sought a settlement. Two former editors say Ogden also declined to run a news article and two opinion columns related to Mr. Doronin.
Finally, The Aspen Daily News broke the news that its competitor had been sued. There wasn’t 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 “minor edits” to two articles. It removed a letter to the editor and agreed to make a good-faith effort to obtain comments from Mr. Doronin for future articles.
A headline was changed from “Oligarch or not, new Aspen investor has Russian ties” to “New Aspen investor has luxury hotel connections.” An editor’s note now on the article says it failed to meet the paper’s standards for “accuracy, fairness and objectivity.”
The paper’s Aspen-based publisher, Allison Pattillo, disputed criticism that the paper had been silenced.
While The Aspen Times did not cover the lawsuit itself, she said, there were no restrictions against further articles about Mr. Doronin or the land trade. She said the defamation case had “zero effect on our coverage.”
“The notion that we were bullied by Doronin or that Doronin has any input into our newsroom is ridiculous,” Ms. Pattillo in an email. “We have not and will never act to suppress the truth.”
Some former employees say the paper’s executives rescinded the mention of Mr. Doronin after he sued. When David Krause, a former editor, emailed management in April to discuss an article that took a dig at Mr. Doronin’s business associates, an executive with Ogden Newspapers responded: “No reporting on these matters at this time.”
The aftermath led to an exodus of editorial staff and rattled public confidence in the paper, according to interviews with more than a dozen local reporters, officials and Aspen residents. The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit powerhouse that hosts the annual summer Ideas Festival, said it had “taken a break” from advertising in The Aspen Times for now.
“People have lost faith,” said Marie Kelly, 72, who walks every day from her one-bedroom rental in an old ski lodge to pick up a copy. “They didn’t emulate the Aspen attitude, which is: We’re going to put it out there, good or bad.”
Sir. Krause left his job as the paper’s editor in May, citing a health scare and conflicts with the paper’s ownership.
His replacement, Andrew Travers, a respected local journalist, made restoring public confidence his first priority. To that end, he decided to run two columns that had gone unpublished after the lawsuit was filed, as well as a series of internal emails that showed the turmoil inside the paper.
Sir. Travers said he discussed his plans with his publisher, Ms. Pattillo before running the works in June. But hours after they were published, he said, he was called into a meeting and fired by an Ogden official. He said he felt blind.
“I had worked through the system to do the right thing for the paper and the public interest,” he said. “We wanted to count on this. It was supposed to be a black eye, but we had to move on. Obviously, I was wrong.”
Officials at Ogden Newspapers declined to discuss Mr. Travers’ firing, calling it an internal human resources matter.
Pitkin County officials, outraged by the unrest, recently voted to designate Aspen’s younger, locally owned newspaper, The Aspen Daily News, as the official “paper of record” publishing all county legal notices. A handful of other advertisers have pulled out.
In June, 18 current and former elected officials signed an open letter saying they had lost confidence in Ogden Newspapers’ management of the paper and raised the idea of boycotting the paper or refusing to speak with Aspen Times reporters. The letter brought its own backlash, with Ms. Pattillo, the publisher, called it “de facto censorship.”
Today, the paper is down to just one journalist. Sir. Travers, the fired editor, is looking for another job to 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 issued its article examining Mr. Doronin’s economy. Byline was Rick Carroll, the reporter who had broken the story in the first place.