The woman who once thought she could own the news in the north was back in federal Bankruptcy Court in Anchorage on Thursday acting dazed and confused.
Gone were the crowds that had followed Alice Rogoff to previous hearings. So, too, most of the media. There were now only a handful of people in the courtroom in the Old Federal Building downtown in the heart of Alaska’s largest city.
They clustered close around bankruptcy trustee Nacole Jipping and Rogoff at a table in a corner of the courtroom where attorneys would normally sit facing a judge. Her back to the crowd, Rogoff had friend and bankruptcy attorney Cabot Christianson at her right elbow with Erin Austin, the chief financial officer for the Alaska Dispatch News at her left elbow.
Across the table sat William Artus, an attorney representing her creditors in what has now evolved into a Chapter 7 liquidation of what little is left of the short-lived Rogoff version of ADN, a news enterprise with roots back to the Anchorage Daily News.
After one-time Daily News and then Dispatch News attorney John McKay, a creditor now, asked if the people at the table could speak up so those in the court room could hear, the small band of spectators only clustered closer to listen more intently to the pointed questions being asked by Artus.
He represents the now down to 168 people Rogoff left hanging to the tune of a couple million dollars when she took the state’s largest news organization into bankruptcy this summer. He is pushing for what is called a 2004 exam, something of a forensic probe into a Rogoff business – the Alaska Dispatch News LLC – entangled with her personal affairs and two other limited liability companies – Alaska Dispatch Publishing LLC and AK Publishing LLC.
“There’s a name similarity there that can be very confusing,” Rogoff attorney Christianson interjected the latter at one point.
Artus had a lot of questions about the maze of Rogoff corporations. Rogoff, Christianson and financial officer Erin Austin didn’t have a lot of answers.
A day before the hearing, Rogoff filed new and updated financial statements indicating she lost a total of $16.62 million over the course of the approximately three years she owned the former Daily News.
That was an increase of about $4 million from what she originally reported and exceeded the $5 million per year her husband, the billionaire David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group, is reported to pay her to stay in Alaska.
The couple are long separated but have a spousal agreement they have so far managed to keep out of public view. A 2004 hearing might finally drag it out. Michael Parise, an attorney for Northrim Bank, intervened in the talks when Artus started edging toward that possibility.
Rogoff still owes the bank about $10 million.
At least one observer of this now month’s long drama – Suzanne Downing at MustReadAlaska.com – was predicting a legal tussle ahead over any sort of deep probe into the tangled finances of Rogoff, who has sometimes helped advise Alaska Gov. Bill Walker on fiscal policy.
Downing quoted TheBalance.com, a website that specializes in coverage of personal finance:
“Rule 2004 provides a process for examining virtually anybody who might have any knowledge of anything touching on the debtor’s finances, property, schedules, plan of reorganization or ability to pay debts. Because of its broad scope, a Rule 2004 exam is often a fishing expedition with no real goal in mind other than to trip up the debtor or uncover evidence of abuse or financial mismanagement. For that reason, even filing a motion with the court requesting a 2004 exam can engender a fight and even a mini-examination by the court to determine the relevance of the information sought.”
To date, Rogoff has been able to avoid publicly revealing much of anything about her spousal agreement, which appears to be her only means of support. Asked about the agreement while under oath at a previous bankruptcy hearing, she said only that “I’d rather not. It’s private.”
With her personal finances private and her business finances a thicket, Artus would appear to face a formidable task in tracking his way through the collapse of the Dispatch News – now owned by the Binkley Company – to try to find out what, if anything, Rogoff’s creditors might be able to recover.
Assets without value
Rogoff herself didn’t seem to know much about the financials – or said she didn’t know much – even when they involved her prized possessions, a pair of websites. She took those with her as she was leaving the financially failing Dispatch News and turning its assets over to the Binkleys, an old Alaska family from the so-called Golden Heart of the state in Fairbanks.
“Is there any value to any of these websites,” Artus asked her. Rogoff shook her head no.
One of the websites is ArcticNow.com. It is something of a scaled down version of AlaskaDispatch.com, the Alaska Dispatch Publishing website started by Tony Hopfinger and then-wife Amanda Coyne. Rogoff bought controlling interests in their operation and expanded the news coverage to offer an alternative to ADN.com owned by The McClatchy Company, a California company.
ArcticNow appears to be set up as money-making business. It provides readers three free stories. After that they are directed to log in for $1 per week, or buy a year’s membership, $120, or a monthly membership, $12.99.
Alaska Dispatch subscribers can read for free.
ArcticNow was started by Dispatch News. What its relationship with the Dispatch News now is unclear. Where subscription revenue went when Arctic Now was part of the Dispatch News is unclear. Where the revenue goes now is unclear.
Asked to describe the site, Rogoff called it, ” a digital news compilation.”
Asked who runs the site, Rogoff said, “it’s being operated by me personally,” though she appears to be mainly the financier. The site lists Krestia DeGeorge, a former Dispatch News employee, as the editor, and it compiles stories from reporters around the Arctic, some of whom Rogoff appears to be paying.
The site was built by employees of the Dispatch News and the Washington Post.
“When I was the owner of Dispatch,” Rogoff said, “it operated on the same platform as the Dispatch. It was included in what the Dispatch paid (the Post to administer that platform). It was not broken out as a separate cost.”
Pushed for details, Rogoff added, “I could be wrong. I didn’t follow that detail.”
There seemed to be a lot of details Rogoff failed to follow.
When Artus asked her about the tangle of Alaska Dispatch News and AK Publishing accounts, Rogoff said, “simply they’re all the same.”
Asked how anyone was to tell what were Dispatch News liabilities and assets and what were AK Publishing assets and liabilities given that arrangement, she said, “I never thought through the consequences.”
Austin tried to jump in to help, saying “there were special purposes for each account,” but the picture only got more confused. As Artus tried to work his way through it, she confessed, “I don’t know.”
What was clear was that the people who worked for the Dispatch News were being paid by AK Publishing, a different company. Austin described that company as basically “a payroll account.”
The discussion only got muddier when Artus asked if Rogoff got anything of value from Northrim when it loaned her $10 million midway through her short reign at ADN. Rogoff didn’t seem to understand.
The money, she said, was “so I could continue to fund the Dispatch.”
What would have happened without the loan, Artus asked.
Rogoff said she would have had to “turn the lights outs” or bankrupt the company.
The Northrim loan started as part of the financing that allowed Rogoff to buy the ADN from McClatchy for what now seems a staggering $34 million in April 2014. Three years, three months later, the Binkleys paid $1 million for it in bankruptcy.
Somewhere during Rogoff’s ownership, the Northrim loan was “extended,” she said; and renegotiated. It was when this discussion started that Northrim attorney Parise started getting nervous and interjected that he didn’t want anything Rogoff said to be taken as a final statement as to fact.
He appeared worried the trustee might make a formal determination the Dispatch News and AK Publishing were the same entity, and accused Artus of an “agenda to establish” that in the Chapter 7 hearing.
“There’s a lot at stake in half an hour,” Parise said.
The half an hour set aside for the hearing ended with a lot still at stake. Stay tuned.
Correction: William Artus’s named was misspelled in the original version of this story.