Media

Valuing words

the napkin

After eight days of sometimes rambling and regularly wandering testimony over the course of two weeks, the $1 million lawsuit former Alaska Dispatch News editor Tony Hopfinger filed against old boss Alice Rogoff is set to be handed to an Anchorage jury today.

Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi set closing arguments in the so-called “napkin case” for 8:30 a.m. The jury should get the case by afternoon.

What jurors decide could well hinge on what they think of the “in my mind” defense of the 67-year-old Rogoff, a one-time East Coast socialite who invested in Hopfinger’s Alaska Dispatch on a journey to achieve her dream of ownership of the Anchorage Daily News.

Funded by millions of dollars from estranged, billionaire husband David Rubenstein, she bought the News in May 2014 only to have it in deep financial trouble by early 2017 and in bankruptcy by August of that year.

Along the way she blew up what she summarized as a professional marriage to Hopfinger and now ex-wife Amanda Coyne, the co-founder of the Dispatch; helped get friend Bill Walker elected governor of Alaska; finally divorced Rubenstein; and left a trail of chaos in her wake.

She was sued for millions by the company that owned the building housing her old press, the company that owned the building she wanted to make into a new press plant, and the contractor preparing that building.

The bankruptcy dragged out for months and threatened to leave debtors, some of them small Alaska businesses, out $2 million. A laywer for a bankruptcy trustee threatened Rogoff with fraud charges and the loss of her now prize news site – Arctic Now – before Rubenstein stepped in to help settle issues with a promise to fund $1.5 million in repayment to Rogoff debtors.

Though she claimed $23 million in losses from loans to the Dispatch News limited liability company – one of her many Alaska LLCs – during the bankruptcy hearing, she agreed to drop those claims.

She has settled most of the lawsuits, but remains in a nasty battle with Mark Miller of M&M Wiring Services. Miller showed up in court one day last week to give Rogoff a courtroom entryway shout-out during a break.

“You’re doing great, Alice,” he said.

She did not respond, according to those who witnessed the encounter. Rogoff has largely avoided eye contact with Hopfinger and other former Alaska Dispatch and Daily News reporters and editors who have dropped in on the poorly attended trial.

Some have observed the largely empty gallery as a commentary on the state of the media in these times. There is agreement among old journalists that if the late and fabled publishers of the Anchorage Daily News, Kay Fanning, or the Anchorage Times, Bob Atwood, had gone on trial so shortly after the peak of their influence, the courtroom would likely have overflowed into the hallway and the reporters would have swarmed.

Now there is little interest in an aging millionairess who started her Alaska publishing adventure by investing in a website that proudly proclaimed “We Don’t Do Dead Trees” only to lose tens of millions of dollars trying to sell words on-paper in a form her attorneys once proclaimed “vital to all Alaska.”

The newspaper itself has passed on to the Binkley Company, a business formed by a historic Alaska family from the community of Fairbanks in Central Alaska. They have changed the name back to the Daily News and stemmed the financial bleeding that put Rogoff out of business, but newspaper circulation is reported to be continuing its slow but steady downward slide as is the case almost everywhere in the country.

Fireworks

Testimony in the case ended Tuesday afternoon, and the lawyers were later snapping at each other after Jeffery Robinson, Hopfinger’s attorney, took a jab at Rogoff’s team of attorneys from Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot.

Rogoff repeatedly testified under oath that she couldn’t have been negotiating to pay Hopfinger $100,000 for 10 years for his remaining interest in Alaska Dispatch, a company about to be swallowed by the ADN, because “in my mind” the annual payments were intended to keep him rooted in Alaska for a decade.

“No reasonable person…should believe there was anything other than a contract to pay Mr. Hopfinger for his shares,” Robinson said after the jury had left for the day and attorneys were negotiating jury instructions with the judge.

There is no corroborating evidence to support any other idea, he said; no evidence to even hint at the incentive pay idea before Hopfinger filed suit and “they fabricated this argument.”

That brought Rogoff attorney David Gross to his feet to voice an angry objection to the accusation. His colleague Mara Michaletz complained to Guidi that “I’ve never been accused of unethical behavior before.”

Guidi told the lawyers to cool down. After a total of eight days of trial, he counseled everyone is tired and short-tempered. Michaletz thanked the judge, but Robinson wasn’t exactly letting go.

“I’m not intending to insult,” he said, “but that’s how it happened.”

Simple made complicated

On its face, the Hopfinger-Rogoff dispute would appear simple. Hopfinger and Rogoff discussed her buying his interest in Alaska Dispatch for $1 million, a sum almost as inflated as the $34 million she paid The McClatchy Company to buy the News.

Hopfinger hung onto a signed and dated napkin on which in March 2014 she promised the $1 million in 10 annual payments of $100,000. Rogoff was at the time under Northrim Bank restrictions not to make any deals over $50,000 per year without bank approval.

Hopfinger claims she told him the napkin would have to do until the bank, which had lent her $13 million to aid in the purchase of the News, waved the restriction and a formal contract could be drafted.

With the bank still watching over Rogoff’s shoulder, she made true on the agreement with the first payment of $100,000 written out to Hopfinger on a personal check in  early 2015.

Hopfinger was then in on-and-off negotiations with Rogoff’s small army of Birch-Horton attorneys trying to hammer out the fine points of a proper, lawyerly approved contract with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

He saved all his emails, which left quite the paper trail. It ended with an email from Rogoff to Hopfinger saying the bank restriction was lifted, and they could do the deal.

A subsequent argument over money and Rogoff’s discovery that Hopfinger had sold his house and really was leaving Alaska as he had earlier told her, ended their friendship shortly after that email was sent. Rogoff decided Hopfinger was disloyal, a claim that had led to the firing of at least one other top-level manager at the Dispatch News, and no more checks were written.

Hopfinger eventually sued, and that is when the case took a twist.

Attorneys for Rogoff argued that there had never been a deal because Hopfinger and Rogoff were negotiating different agreements.

Hopfinger, as is well documented, was negotiating the sale of his remaining interest in Alaska Dispatch for the 10 payments of $100,000, but Rogoff was negotiating a 10-year incentive plan to pay Hopfinger $100,000 per year on top of a salary of $190,000 a year to keep him in Alaska.

Rogoff claimed not to have seen the only email that could be found showing she’d been copied in on the more formal contract. Bill Bittner, one of the partners at Rogoff’s law firm, was accused of going rogue and negotiating the buy-out deal with Hopfinger without his client’s approval.

Hopfinger testified under oath that he and Rogoff had talked about the deal more than once. Rogoff denied any memory and testified under oath over and over again that “in my mind” the payments were always intended to assure Hopfinger would remain by her side.

Hopfinger’s fault

Rogoff holds Hopfinger responsible for the failure of the state’s largest newspaper under her ownership.

“I wouldn’t have lost it if he’d been there,” Rogoff said early in her several days of rambling, sometimes contradictory and other times just plain odd testimony. ““He left me in the lurch on the project that killed the newspaper.”

At another point, she testified, “I don’t do business in writing,” and shortly thereafter returned to the defense table where she appeared to be tapping out a text on her phone.

Her claim wasn’t much help to her attorneys, either, given that they built key parts of their case around the idea the Hopfinger napkin was no good because it wasn’t a formal document written in legalese. His testimony, Rogoff’s testimony, and that of most of her own expert witnesses only underlined the informality with which she did business at all her companies.

The judge was clearly left scratching his head.

In a written decision denying a request from Hopfinger’s attorneys that he prohibit the jury from considering the “incentive pay” argument, he Tuesday afternoon wrote that “the evidence supporting  incentive compensation is extremely weak. There is a distinct paucity of objective evidence manifested during the formation of the contract to support that theory. Nonetheless, at this time the motion for directed verdict on this issue is denied.”

As he told the attorneys at the end of the hearing Tuesday, the incentive pay argument appears lame, but he’s not inclined to take it away from the jury’s consideration.

“I put a lot of faith in the jury to figure it out,” he said.

 

 

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16 replies »

  1. Seems like this court case is meandering. Shouldn’t matter what the terms were. That’s irrelevant. The issue is – was the napkin a legal contract? If so, Roglof needs to pay up another $900K. Simple. But lawyers can’t do simple.

    So Craig, any talk about how Binkley-ADN is doing financially? Are they going to survive as is? Or survive at all?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great reporting Craig..Whrn this is over, dig into the whole phony Trump/Russian collusion and all its treasonous players that should be hung. Man would that be juicy. Be a helluva story for a real investigative reporter.

    Like

    • I agree with you Bryan Craig’s awesome talents would help bring justice and clarity to the Clinton mob big money syndicate / probably phony Russian collusion distraction- slow take down screw with trumps agenda and put fear of personal retribution into trumps biggest backers . It’s a huge scam being done on America’s people. Trump is against a huge wall . Even the fed is trying to slowly take him down. Break trumps financial picture and he will be done . Lotta sneaky enemies he has . Anyone who has done real research knows who trumps largest backers were . It’s some very intelligent quantitative investors. Who have one of the most successful investment firm in world. They are Americans not Russians. His voting base just wants change and a clean government with good financial outlook for their families. Russia collusion- biggest joke and scam ever ! Mueller is wasting our money! Kick him out ! Spend the millions He wastes on heartland farmers rehabilitation of steel industry and helping Americans and poor migrants . Those partisan lying Clinton tool mueller lawyers don’t deserve that money . Stop the scam !

      Like

      • Bingo Opinion.. Very covert and at times overtly SLEEZY going ons. The “Deep State” as they say. Would make a helluva story or movie. Can’t believe it has taken one man (Trump) with the balls to expose it. Amazing really.

        Like

      • Probably won’t be long now until we get to see Trump’s tax returns and will then know who these “intelligent quantitative investors” are.
        And by the way, what is an “intelligent quantitative investor?”

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I support public hangings, I’m not joking. Why do you continue to visit this blog if you find the content so disagreeable? If a joke about public hangings in a state with a history of lynchings disturbs you so, write your own blog, Yet here you are using Craigs work for your soapbox.

    Get over yourself.

    Like

    • Well Mr Mac,
      Lisa represents all of Alaska…a state that does NOT support Capital Punishment, let alone “Public Hangings”.
      The history of racism and Lynchings in the “deep south” is one of the greater scars on modern U.S. society.
      As Medred points out today, “Valuing Words” is important in today’s polarized world.
      Not condoning the hanging comment was very disturbing for many Alaskans…hence the APRN news story last night…
      If we choose to forget National History and allow puppet politicians to incite violence with their political funding from multi national global corporations (Super Pacs) then we are losing the framework for the last Democracy on Earth.
      “Lynching is the unjustified setting aside of judicial due process for mob vengeance. Mob violence in the form of lynching brings law into contempt. President Reagan once stated: “Without law, there can be no freedom, only chaos and disorder. And without freedom, law is but a cynical veneer for injustice and oppression.” Lynching is, by definition and by its nature, lawless.”

      https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.montgomeryadvertiser.com/amp/700690001

      Like

      • But wait Steve, sure, let’s vote for the Democrat in Mississippi where the Democrat Party ran the KKK, Slavery, hangings on Friday, Segregation all week, supported anti-Civil Rights, anti-Voting Rights, and fed their dogs on dark meat. Oh, those evil Republicans… The nerve of them. Hahahaha!! Wow, what a short memory the people of Mississippi have.. Steve, your phony outrage is pathetic.

        Like

  4. Funny how you continue to write how media is dying in this country and then you choose to write essentially the same story for nearly a dozen times in a few weeks?
    Maybe you can write about how Lisa Murkowski is now supporting fellow GOP candidates who openly joke about public hangings in a state that was home to the worst racial lynchings in U.S. History?
    WTF?
    “Some campaign contributors asked Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., for a refund after the senator made a light-hearted remark about “public hanging.” But Sen. Lisa Murkowski made a maximum campaign contribution. Murkowski said she won’t condemn her Republican colleague for “one comment … at one gathering.”
    Luckily for voters in Alaska that our Public Radio News is covering this story.
    What ever happened to Liberty and Justice for ALL?
    Whatever happened to “Moderate Republicans”?

    https://www.alaskapublic.org/2018/11/27/murkowski-all-in-for-hyde-smith-despite-hanging-remark/

    Liked by 1 person

    • But wait Steve, sure, let’s vote for the Democrat in Mississippi where the Democrat Party ran the KKK, Slavery, hangings on Friday, Segregation all week, supported anti-Civil Rights, anti-Voting Rights, and fed their dogs on dark meat. Oh, those evil Republicans… The nerve of them. Hahahaha!! Wow, what a short memory the people of Mississippi have.. Steve, your phony outrage is pathetic.

      Like

      • > sure, let’s vote for the Democrat in Mississippi where the Democrat Party ran the KKK

        When you repeat stuff like this, you advertise your ignorance.

        Liked by 1 person

      • > Doug, and what “ignorance” would that be? Haha, love to hear it from the scholar.

        I think it’s the same sort of ignorance experienced by the Connecticut Yankee trying to explain economics to the locals in King Arthur’s Court.

        Liked by 2 people

      • > you are obviously showing your “ignorance” of American history.

        And just llike the yokels in KAC only cared about ‘high wages’ with no understanding of other economic factors, you only care about the label ‘Democrat’, with no understanding of history.

        Like

    • Follow up articles can be tedious but that’s how facts and truth is exposed . So that’s why Craig sacrifices his time and energy is the pursuit of real journalism and true education. Not always glamorous. Thank you Craig for cleaning the toilet. ! Doggedness

      Liked by 1 person

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