The former president and editor of Alaska Dispatch News has filed a lawsuit against Alaska Dispatch Publishing LLC and its owner, Alice Rogoff, asserting she failed to pay money he says was promised to him.
Tony Hopfinger now lives in Chicago and hasn't been involved in the operations of the newspaper since the end of 2015. The suit was filed on Wednesday in state Superior Court in Anchorage.
Hopfinger co-founded the news website Alaska Dispatch in 2008 with his then-wife Amanda Coyne. Rogoff purchased a majority of Alaska Dispatch Publishing LLC in 2009, and Hopfinger and Coyne each retained 5 percent of the company.
David Karl Gross, an attorney at the Anchorage law firm Birch Horton Bittner and Cherot, representing both Rogoff and Alaska Dispatch Publishing, said in a statement that the suit "is the unfortunate conclusion to a former business relationship in which Rogoff, through substantial financial assistance, supported and nurtured Hopfinger's journalistic aspirations and catapulted him into control as editor at the Alaska Dispatch News, Alaska's most widely read and recognized news source."
Hopfinger didn't "live up to his promises" of running the organization, Gross said.
Rogoff announced plans to buy the Anchorage Daily News from The McClatchy Co. in 2014. But Hopfinger didn't want to be an owner of Alaska Dispatch anymore if it was going to acquire the Daily News, according to the suit. That was because of revenue concerns and, the lawsuit says, specifically because Rogoff said at the time that she was "contemplating bringing in other investors," including Alaska developer John Rubini.
Hopfinger thought this would have been a journalistic conflict of interest for the organization, the suit says. Rogoff never took on partners and remains the sole owner of the company. Hopfinger was employed as the editor and president of Alaska Dispatch News at the combined company.
At the heart of the dispute is the assertion that most of the money owed to Hopfinger as part of a buyout was never paid to him, after an oral agreement with Rogoff in March 2014 that he would be paid $1 million in cash with interest, payable over 10 years, and given $300,000 of ownership options in the new combined company.
That buyout was "in order to facilitate the $34 million acquisition of the assets of the Anchorage Daily News," according to the lawsuit.
But Gross said the money was intended for another reason.
"In order to ensure that Hopfinger was truly committed to the paper, Rogoff tentatively and conditionally agreed to provide him with compensation contingent on Hopfinger's willingness to undertake broad responsibilities for at least 10 years," he said in his statement, "and to dedicate himself to the success of the paper."
The lawsuit says the buyout paperwork "remained in limbo" for weeks.
Hopfinger approached Rogoff to discuss the buyout in April 2014, the suit says. That's when, it continues, Rogoff wrote a promise to Hopfinger on a cocktail napkin that read: "I agree to pay Tony $100K at end of each calendar year (beginning '14) for 10 years."
The lawsuit says she gave him the napkin in the presence of one of her attorneys, but Gross said there was no lawyer present. Rogoff told Hopfinger during the exchange that he should "show this to the judge if I don't ever pay you," according to the lawsuit.
Rogoff later "at the last minute" canceled a meeting at which they were supposed to finalize the contract, the lawsuit says.
Now, Hopfinger is saying Rogoff hasn't held up her end of the agreement and that she owes him compensatory and punitive damages. She did pay him the first of the $100,000 payments in January 2015, the lawsuit said.
In April 2015, Alaska Dispatch News announced that Hopfinger would step down as editor but remain president of the company, and would move to Chicago to be near an ill family member.
Gross said in the statement that Hopfinger has remarried and permanently relocated to Chicago, "with no apparent plans to return or to provide support to the Alaska Dispatch News."
Another dispute in the lawsuit is over whether Hopfinger quit or was terminated from the company.
He and Rogoff had an argument about the agreement in a parking lot in December 2015, according to the suit. "(N)othing was resolved but Hopfinger continued to perform his duties for the Dispatch News," it says.
When he returned to work in January 2016 after a preapproved honeymoon, he was told "various times … that his employment had either been terminated 'for cause' or, alternatively, that ADP (Alaska Dispatch Publishing) believed he had resigned his employment in December while speaking with Rogoff in the parking lot."
Hopfinger didn't resign, according to the lawsuit, and he now wants severance pay. Rogoff's attorney says otherwise.
"When you scream at your boss and use expletives and then leave the state, I think any normal person is going to understand that that means quitting your job," Gross said over the phone. "A jury or court will have to make a decision about whether that was a resignation or something else."
Hopfinger's employment contract, attached in court records, shows his annual salary was $190,000.
A company called AK Publishing LLC now owns Alaska Dispatch News' assets, and is entirely owned by Rogoff through another company called The Moon and the Stars LLC.
Rogoff is married to billionaire David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group. She previously worked as chief financial officer of U.S. News and World Report. Hopfinger was a reporter at the Anchorage Daily News before starting the Alaska Dispatch website.