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Swedish billionaire developing Aspen hotel sues Colorado newspaper over “oligarch” label

Shelly Bradbury, The Denver Post on

Published in Entertainment News

That column, too, was edited after Doronin’s public relations team threatened a lawsuit over the use of the term “oligarch,” according to an editor’s note added to the column. Later, the newspaper published a reader-submitted letter to the editor that said Doronin’s money was tainted and Aspen “should not become a ‘laundromat’ for corrupt funds to be bleached, hung out and dried.”

Doronin’s attorneys called the allegations of corruption “scurrilous falsehoods” in their complaint against Swift Communications, the Aspen Times’ owner, and said the newspaper was capitalizing on “anti-Russian sentiment” amid the invasion of Ukraine.

Doronin’s legal team did not respond to a request from The Denver Post for comment last week; Aspen Times publisher Allison Pattillo declined to comment. An email listed for OKO Group was not working Thursday.

In the lawsuit, Doronin’s attorneys argue the term “oligarch” is synonymous with corruption, and so should not be applied to Doronin.

“Oligarchs are not merely wealthy individuals of Russian origin; they are individuals who have amassed their wealth through the exploitation of Russian natural resources, corrupt direction of Russian state-owned enterprises, and close political affiliation with Vladimir Putin,” the complaint reads.

But Jeffrey A. Winters, author of the book “Oligarchy” and a professor at Northwestern University, said that definition is wrong, and part of an effort by today’s ultra-wealthy to deflect criticism over their wealth and power and distance themselves from the term.

“That is a definition that is self-serving on the part of oligarchs and it’s part of deflecting attention and criticism,” he said. “But that has nothing to with the way the term has been used for thousands of years.”

The term “oligarch” emerged in ancient Greece and has traditionally been used to describe people who are wealthy and achieve power through their wealth, he said.

 

“A person is an oligarch if they are empowered in a certain way, empowered by wealth,” he said, adding later, “The source of the money is irrelevant, it is the power associated with the 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 “intimidating lawsuits against the press,” particularly in countries without First Amendment protections, to shut down criticism that threatens their wealth.

U.S. law gives extra protections against defamation allegations to media outlets writing about matters of public concern, said Denver attorney Dan Ernst, who is not involved in the lawsuit.

Proving a defamation claim against a media outlet requires the person making the claim to prove not only that the published information was false, but also that the publisher knew it was false and published it anyway, or that it was reckless or malicious.

“It’s not an easy argument to make,” Ernst said.

There’s also a distinction in law between information presented as opinion and that presented as fact, he said. In a 1994 Colorado Supreme Court case, the justices found statements of opinion are generally protected from claims of defamation. Statements that can be proven true or false, and that a reasonable person might conclude are statements of fact, generally are not considered to be opinion.

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