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Photographer sues Aspen Daily News over alleged unemployment ‘scheme’

Rick Carroll, Aspen Times

A former photographer for the Aspen Daily News filed a federal complaint this week alleging the publication’s leadership hatched a fraudulent scheme to subsidize its workforce with public money during the early stages of the pandemic. A Denver attorney representing the Daily News called the lawsuit a “frivolous” attempt by a “disgruntled photographer” seeking a payoff.

Craig Turpin, a photographer with the newspaper for more than three years before leaving in May, is the plaintiff. His suit, which was filed Monday, claims the newspaper’s leadership persuaded its employees to collect state unemployment benefits while they were still working.

The suit alleges the plan was unveiled to the Daily News staff at a March 26 meeting — during the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic — when Aspen and the rest of the country were under a virtual lock down and the economy was floundering.

“The employees were threatened that they would lose their jobs and would not be rehired if they did not submit to the scheme,” said the suit.

Named as defendants are Silver City News, which is the corporate identity of the Daily News, as well as the media outlet’s managing director-publisher, David Cook, and its executive producer-publisher, Spencer McKnight.

According to allegations in the complaint, the scheme worked like this: Employees would keep working at the paper while collecting state unemployment. They would collect the money by falsely telling the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment they had worked zero hours at the company. In the meantime, the Daily News would pay them 25% of what they collected in unemployment benefits, while employees were to report to the labor department that their ADN income was through contract labor, or what’s called 1099 income.

At the meeting, Cook told staff the plan was “certainly not illegal,” the suit alleged. Cook also allegedly told workers “the chances of anyone getting audited (were) pretty low” because of the unusually high volume of unemployment claims being filed at the time.

Turpin left the news organization May 11, “informing them that he could not work under the scheme presented by Cook at the meeting,” the suit said. Turpin declined comment when reached Wednesday.

Cook and McKnight did not directly respond to a message seeking comment, but in a statement given to The Aspen Times, Jason C. Astle of Springer & Steinberg PC, said the publication committed no wrongdoing.

“The Aspen Daily News is a dedicated, locally owned and independently operated newspaper that has served the Roaring Fork Valley community for 42 years,” Astle’s statement said. “The lawsuit against it by Mr. Turpin is frivolous and a distortion of the facts. At no time did the paper or its owners do anything illegal or fraudulent.

“This is merely an attempt by a disgruntled photographer looking for a pay day at a time when small businesses everywhere are struggling. We will defend against the allegations vigorously.”

The Denver-based Sawaya & Miller Law Firm, which specializes in personal-injury and workplace compensation litigation, filed the suit in the U.S. District Court of Denver on Turpin’s behalf.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in 10 years of practicing law,” said attorney Adam M. Harrison of Sawaya & Miller. “It’s one of those things you can’t make up.”

Turpin regularly worked 48 to 50 hours a week with a salary of $45,000, but when the alleged scheme kicked in, his compensation from the paper — 25% of what he collected in unemployment — fell below state and federal minimum-wage thresholds.

“For example,” the suit said, “Turpin worked approximately 50 hours for the defendants during each of the weeks in April 2020. However, the defendants paid Turpin $274 per week — approximately $5.48 per hour — for the hours he worked during April 2020. As a result of the Defendant’s scheme, the defendant’s stopped paying for Turpin’s health insurance, despite the fact that he was still a full-time employee.

“The defendant’s scheme created work conditions for Turpin that were intolerable: he was being forced to work for wages and compensation that were well below legally mandated minimum wage rates, and he was being asked to participate in fraud so that the defendants could subsidize their workforce with state and federal money.”

While the suit alleges fraudulent activity by the Daily News, there are no official claims of fraud. The suit’s claims are that the Daily News violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Colorado Wage Act, the Colorado Minimum Wages of Workers Act, Colorado minimum wage orders and Colorado overtime and minimum pay standards order.

The complaint also asks the court to issue a declaratory judgment “condemning the defendants’ willful violations of the FLSA and Colorado Wage and Hour Law.”

Turpin’s suit seeks back pay, front pay, compensatory damages and exemplary damages, which are damages awarded on an increased scale.

Harrison said, “For us, the bottom line is that a company shouldn’t gain an advantage over others, as hard as things are, and survive by cheating.”

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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