Swedish billionaire who develops Hotel Aspen sues Colorado newspaper over ‘oligarch’ label
A Swedish billionaire who is developing a controversial luxury hotel in Aspen is suing one of the city’s newspapers for defamation, claiming The Aspen Times falsely portrayed him as a corrupt Russian oligarch amid that country’s war on the US. ‘Ukraine.
Vladislav Doronin, who was born in the Soviet Union and made his fortune on the Moscow real estate scene in the 1990s, says newspaper coverage of him in news stories and opinion pieces casts a shadow over his purchase of $76.25 million land in Aspen and its planned development, according to a lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
This is the latest escalation in a simmering fight between the newspaper and Doronin. The Aspen Times criticized Doronin’s purchase, while the billionaire’s PR team fiercely fought the ‘oligarch’ label, denied corruption allegations and highlighted Doronin’s disapproval of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Doronin, of Soviet descent, left that country and renounced his citizenship in the mid-1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He now lives in Switzerland and is a Swedish citizen. He parted ways with his Russia-focused business in 2014, according to the lawsuit, and “has not conducted any business in Russia since,” his lawyers wrote.
The 59-year-old is CEO of OKO Group, a Miami-based property development company, and Aman Group, a Swiss-based luxury resort brand.
In March, the OKO Group purchased a nearly one-acre parcel in Aspen, at the base of Aspen Mountain Ski Resort Lift 1A, from developers with local ties who had obtained approval from the voters to expand the field by just 26 votes, in part emphasizing their commitment to the Aspen community.
The Aspen Times editorial board slammed the unexpected sale to an out-of-town developer, which came just months after the original developers bought the property — and the rights to it. build a hotel – for 10 million dollars.
The Aspen Times ran a story on the sale in March, initially referring to Doronin as an oligarch before later tweaking the story to remove that reference. In a later opinion piece, columnist John Colson compared Doronin to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich – who he says also owns property in Aspen – and hinted the pair might have worked with Russian President Vladimir Putin .
“I have no idea if Abramovich or Doronin currently have Putin’s ear or were aware of the pre-planning for the invasion, but again, I wouldn’t be surprised if either or both are ultimately aware of this whole nasty mess,” Colson said. adding that Doronin and Abramovich were “at least…almost certainly…deeply embedded in the kleptocratic culture that emerged after the collapse of the USSR”.
Abramovich, who was subject to international sanctions following Putin’s war on Ukraine, is also the largest shareholder in the company that owns the Pueblo steel plant.
This column was also edited after Doronin’s public relations team threatened to sue over the use of the term “oligarch,” according to an editor’s note added to the column. The paper later published a letter submitted by a reader to the editor which said Doronin’s money was tainted and that Aspen “should not become a ‘laundry’ for corrupt funds to be laundered, suspended and dried”.
Doronin’s lawyers called bribery allegations ‘slanderous lies’ in their suit against Swift Communications, owner of Aspen Times, and said the paper was capitalizing on ‘anti-Russian sentiment’ amid the invasion from Ukraine.
Doronin’s legal team did not respond to a Denver Post request for comment last week; Aspen Times editor Allison Pattillo declined to comment. An email listed for OKO Group was not working on Thursday.
In the lawsuit, Doronin’s lawyers argue that the term “oligarch” is synonymous with corruption and therefore should not be applied to Doronin.
“The oligarchs are not just wealthy individuals of Russian origin; they are individuals who have amassed their wealth through the exploitation of Russian natural resources, the corrupt management of Russian state-owned enterprises, and a close political affiliation with Vladimir Putin,” the complaint reads.
But Jeffrey A. Winters, author of the book ‘Oligarchy’ and professor at Northwestern University, said that definition was flawed and part of an effort by today’s ultra-rich to deflect criticism of their wealth. and their power and distance themselves from the term. .
“It’s a definition that is selfish on the part of the oligarchs and it’s part of the diversion of attention and criticism,” he said. “But that has nothing to do with how the term has been used for thousands of years.”
The term “oligarch” originated in ancient Greece and has traditionally been used to describe wealthy people who rise to power through their wealth, he said.
“A person is an oligarch if they are empowered in a certain way, empowered by wealth,” he said, later adding, “The source of the money is irrelevant, it’s the power associated with money that defines someone as an oligarch.”
Oligarchs don’t like to be called oligarchs, he said, and it’s a common tactic for them to use “bullying press suits,” especially in countries without First Amendment protections, to silence critics who threaten their wealth.
US law provides additional protections against defamation claims for media outlets writing about matters of public interest, said Denver attorney Dan Ernst, who is not involved in the lawsuit.
To prove a defamation claim against a media outlet, the person making the claim must prove not only that the information published was false, but also that the publisher knew it was false and published it anyway, or that she was reckless or malicious.
“It’s not an easy argument to make,” Ernst said.
There is also a distinction in law between information presented as opinion and information presented as fact, he said. In a 1994 Colorado Supreme Court case, judges concluded that statements of opinion are generally protected from claims of defamation. Statements that can be proven to be true or false, and which a reasonable person would conclude to be statements of fact, are generally not considered opinions.