Moscow tie lingered for Aspen’s 1A developer
The Aspen Times
Vladislav Doronin, the Soviet-born investor whose company OKO Group in March paid $76.5 million for an acre to build a hotel on Aspen Mountain, held a one-third stake in a Moscow-based company at the time of the purchase despite saying he had ceased conducting business in Russia years earlier, U.S. and Russian public records show.
Documents submitted as evidence in a Miami court case also show that Doronin transferred his ownership of that company, Capital Group Development, to his mother in Russia on April 14, a day after he filed suit claiming The Aspen Times had defamed him.
Those records raise questions about what Doronin, his lawyers and publicists have been asserting for months: that the Soviet-born, now-Swedish national and resident of Switzerland, who also owns and is the chairman of Swiss-based Aman Resorts, has not conducted any business in Russia since around 2014.
Neither Doronin nor his team returned several inquiries over the past week seeking comments for this story until shortly before 2 p.m. Tuesday, when a publicist reached out but declined to comment on the record.
Miami-based OKO Group bought the 1-acre parcel at the base of Aspen Mountain on March 4, eight days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even in Aspen, where real estate values commonly soar, his $76.5 million purchase price was strikingly higher than the $10 million the seller, a local development group led by Jeff Gorsuch, paid Aspen Skiing Co. for the land eight months earlier.
Skico had the parcel under contract since the mid-2010s with a partnership that included Gorsuch and Bryan Peterson, the Aspen Daily News originally reported in June 2015. Closing the deal was contingent on the buyers’ receiving building approvals and entitlements for the land.
The deal met with backlash from the community.
Three years prior, Aspen’s electorate passed by just 26 votes a ballot issue approving plans for the 81-room Gorsuch Haus project as part of a major redevelopment on Aspen Mountain’s west side. The approved plans also included a new chairlift, another lodge, a ski museum and retail. The entire project is to amass approximately 320,000 square feet of commercial space.
The sale of the property to Doronin’s company prompted criticism of Gorsuch, one of three locals partnering in the Norway Island development group who had championed a hotel with his prominent ski family’s surname as a major selling point of the referendum campaign. Gorsuch Haus would be a hotel owned and operated by locals with deep connections to Aspen, its history and culture, he and his business partners Peterson and Jim DeFrancia told the community.
Gorsuch, a cousin of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, knocked on voters’ doors to make the case.
Skico, a major player in overhauling the base of the mountain, expressed disapproval of the Gorsuch group selling the land to an outside investor rather than developing the hotel itself.
“While we knew this was a possibility, we believed and hoped that the Gorsuch team had desired to build and operate the project,” read a statement from the company. “We are disappointed that they have ultimately moved in a different direction as we have built a coordinated vision of the site with them over several years.”
The land’s purchase price at more than seven times what the Gorsuch Group had paid for the land, as well as Doronin’s history of having built his fortune in 1990s Russia, added fuel to critics’ ire about the land sale, prompting letters to the local newspapers expressing strong disapproval of the deal.
“While Mr. Gorsuch invested his time and dollars, it does not change the equation,” wrote Aspen reader Eric Johnson in a letter to The Times published March 18. “For a short-term, low-risk real estate investment to return such a high return on investment implies something was very wrong. One explanation is that Aspen Skiing Co. should stick to operating chairlifts, as anyone who sells $76 million of land for $10 million is unquestionably incompetent as a real estate investor. The other explanation is, well, I will let you figure it out.”
On April 13, Doronin filed a defamation lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver alleging The Aspen Times ran unfair and inaccurate news articles and commentary pieces falsely characterizing him as a Russian oligarch. By doing so, his complaint argued, the newspaper implied he had ties to the Kremlin at a time when pressures in the United States and other Western countries were mounting to sanction Russian President Vladimir Putin’s enablers and associates in response to the country’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. The complaint named as defendant Swift Communications LLC, a subsidiary of Ogden Newspapers.
After reviewing the material, representatives of Doronin and the paper negotiated a confidential settlement of the lawsuit on May 31. They have agreed to the following statement:
“As part of an agreement to resolve Vladislav Doronin’s defamation suit against The Aspen Times, the newspaper agreed to retract the letter to the editor that was the subject of that lawsuit and to amend two other articles related to Mr. Doronin. The Aspen Times agreed to take these steps because it determined, in its own judgment, that the pieces were not in keeping with the journalistic standards that the newspaper seeks to uphold. Mr. Doronin does not exercise, or seek to exercise, any control over The Aspen Times’ current or future coverage of him, his investment in the Aspen community, or any other matter, and has had no involvement in any decisions regarding the management or personnel of The Aspen Times. Throughout the litigation process, Mr. Doronin consistently looked for an amicable solution and expressed his desire to be a constructive member of the Aspen community.”
While the lawsuit was on file and the settlement discussions were ongoing, The Times paused reporting and commentary on Doronin or the lawsuit.
In the late 1980s, after emigrating from the Soviet Union, Doronin worked for international financier and commodities trader Marc Rich in Switzerland. Rich had moved there a few years earlier, before he was indicted on U.S. federal charges connected to racketeering, tax evasion, wire fraud and illegally trading with Iran during the oil embargo in 1979. President Bill Clinton pardoned him on his last day in office in 2001.
Doronin renounced his Soviet citizenship in 1986. Five years later, he co-started a commodities trading firm called Capital Group in Moscow. That was the same year the Russian Federation was formed following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Capital Group morphed into a Russian real estate investment company in 1993, just as the new nation’s financially struggling government was raising money by selling people with access to capital the USSR’s formerly nationalized assets, including real estate, at bargain prices.
Capital Group’s website says the company “has been specializing in building the most complex and iconic construction projects in Moscow for 28 years — mixed-use complexes, residential and commercial real estate.” Its projects have included Russia’s first skyscraper, called the City of Capitals in Moscow, completed in 2009, and the massive OKO complex, also in Moscow, completed in 2016, which includes two of Russia’s tallest skyscrapers.
The mid-2010s were pivotal for the scope of Doronin’s business empire. He divested from Capital Group in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea. That same year, Doronin announced he had taken control of the Switzerland-based Aman Group, the holding group of the Aman Resorts luxury brand.
It was with far less fanfare that, also in June 2014, he became a one-third shareholder of a newly created entity related to Capital Group with a similar name, Capital Group Development, which is described in tax records held by the Federal Tax Service of Russia as a company involved in “business and management advice.”
Two other owners, his longtime business partners Pavel Tio and Eduard Berman, each held the two other one-third shares in the company that as of last week was worth about $74.5 million in American dollars.
TRANSFER TO MOTHER
Doronin held onto his one-third ownership of Capital Group Development until April 14 of this year, when public records obtained through a database of companies registered in the Russian Federation show he transferred it to his mother, Zinaida Doronina, a Russian citizen, according to the Unified State Register of Legal Entities.
Doronin, his lawyers and publicist have not responded to The Times’ inquiries about transferring his share of Capital Group Development to his mother.
Lawyers for the company, however, have been discussing the move in an ongoing Russian court case brought against it by a Moscow company called Terra Invest concerning a massive commercial and residential development project in that city called Mir Mitino.
Doronin is not a party to the litigation with Terra Invest, but that company is trying through the U.S. District Court in Miami — where his real estate development firm OKO Group is based — to force him to testify because of his longtime part-ownership in Capital Group Development and presumed familiarity with it.
Capital Group Development is countering that Doronin has no such familiarity because he was merely a passive investor in the company until he transferred his ownership stake to his mother.
The Times obtained documents from part of that Russian case being litigated in Miami. Among them is a 39-page transcript from a May 4 hearing during which Jason Crowley, a lawyer representing Capital Group Development, said Doronin transferred his shares in the company to his mother for two reasons:
One was to remove his exposure to possible sanctions from the Kremlin at a time when Putin was threatening to confiscate assets of any non-Russian citizen of nations that opposed the Ukraine invasion.
The other reason, Crowley said, was to further distance himself from Moscow at a time when the United States and Western nations were freezing assets and seizing properties of people connected to the Kremlin.
Neither the United States nor any other nation have frozen assets, seized property or otherwise sanctioned Doronin. On March 1, he tweeted: “I denounce the aggression of Russia on Ukraine and fervently wish for peace,” adding that he had left the Soviet Union before it dissolved, is not a Russian national and, “I have not conducted business in Russia for many years.”
Doronin, Cowley said, is “trying to stay as far away from Russia and Russian legal issues as he possibly can.”
Prior to Russia’s Ukraine invasion, the website of OKO Group, the development firm Doronin owns and controls in Miami, listed references to seven projects built in Russia, but those references have since been removed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
APPEARANCES AND IMPRESSIONS
A lawyer for Terra Invest suggested during the May 4 hearing in Miami that Doronin and Capital Group Development had been misleading the court about the extent of Doronin’s actual involvement in that company.
Both, Christopher Hotaling argued, have been trying “to create this appearance or this impression that they are separate and that they are distinct, and that Mr. Doronin no longer has any sort of meaningful participation in the management, control or ownership of Capital Group (Development).”
Two of Doronin’s lawyers and one publicist, in responses to questions from The Times since March, also have said that Doronin stopped conducting business in Russia years ago.
“We repeat, again, that Mr. Doronin has no interest in Capital Group or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates and has no ongoing businesses in Russia. Indeed, for years, Mr. Doronin’s only travel to Russia has been as a tourist to visit family members,” Doronin attorney Juan Morillo wrote the newspaper April 8.
“To reiterate what we sent yesterday, we can confirm that Mr. Doronin has no present interest in any Capital Group entity,” Nicholas Inns, another of Doronin’s lawyers, followed up, for emphasis, the next day.
A publicist for Doronin urged The Times in a March 5 email to “please know that Vlad has no political involvement or influence in Russia whatsoever, and as I mentioned has no business dealings there.”
“FYI he has no involvement in Capital Group anymore (he sold it in 2013), and has not conducted any business in Russia for many years,” the publicist wrote.
None of those emails mentioned Capital Group Development, the related Capital Group entity.
Bill Browder, an Aspen vacation homeowner and frequent speaker at Aspen Institute events who writes books about corruption and money laundering in Russia, pointed to the crafting of words about Doronin’s history.
“He claims that he has Swedish citizenship. The Denver Post wrote an article saying, ‘Swedish businessman sues Aspen Times,’ which made me laugh because he carefully tries to distance himself from any roots in Moscow, which is part of Russia. He was born in St. Petersburg and became a billionaire in Moscow. That’s Russian, not Swedish.”
Born in the era of the Soviet Union, however, Doronin was never a Russian citizen.
Browder said Doronin’s lawsuit against The Aspen Times is consistent with the strategy of intimidation that wealthy Russians have used to quiet the news media. “I’ve seen that game played dozens of times,” he said.
Still, Browder, a hedge fund manager who did business in Russia until 2005 and has tracked financial corruption in the country ever since, had never heard of Doronin before this spring.
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