Jim Bleyer painted a grim picture of a debt-ridden, fast-sinking and wildly unethical Tampa Bay Times Tuesday on his blog site, Tampa Bay Beat.
Under the headline "Debt-Ridden Tampa Bay Times Duping Employees, Subscribers, Advertisers, Suppliers," Bleyer irreverently pulls the covers off much of the agony the state's largest newspaper has been going through behind closed doors.
In June 2017 Paul Tash, the Times' $550,000-a-year chairman and CEO was upfront in an editorial about the Times' underwater burden. "... A group of local investors is stepping forward with a loan of $12 million, part of a larger refinancing by the Times company," he wrote. But apparently now the situation is much worse.
Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, claims the Times' pension plan is in jeopardy, its assets mortgaged and bankruptcy looms as it struggles with a total indebtedness believed to be in excess of $100 million. And he produces figures to prove it.
"Times employees have a regular payroll deduction for pension benefits, but it could very well be funneled into financing current operations instead of its intended purpose," he suggests. The Times has denied Bleyer's pension assertion.
"Any employee sufficiently deranged to want to continue employment at the Times should require an examination of its books," Bleyer writes. "Hell -- subscribers, advertisers, suppliers and any entity that has advanced money to the Times should demand to see the results of a forensic audit ..."
The author wryly turns the knife by including in his story a video of "The Underwater Song." The video is reproduced on this page.
Bleyer gets down to numbers when he launches into the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a federal agency that placed liens totaling $70 million against The Times Publishing Company.
The PBGC obtains revenue from four sources, Bleyer shows:
Insurance premiums paid by sponsors of defined benefit pension plans;
Assets held by the pension plans it takes over;
Recoveries of unfunded pension liabilities from plan sponsors’ bankruptcy estates; and
Here's a list of those PBGC liens against the Times:
—Oct. 15, 2015 totaling $7,610,616.
—Jan. 15, 2016 totaling $2,888,797.
—Oct. 15, 2016 totaling $10,904,192.
—Jan. 15, 2017 totaling $3,496,356.
—Apr. 15, 2017 totaling $30,476,992.
—Oct. 15, 2017 totaling $15,369,170.
"The subterfuge, paper shuffling and co-mingling of funds are mind-boggling," Bleyer writes.
On June 28, 2017, Crystal Financial signed a Satisfaction of Mortgage, releasing Poynter Institute, the Times' parent company, from a 2013 loan totaling $28 million. The mortgage security released was the Poynter Institute property and the parcels of land comprising the Times printing plant.
But, then, on the same day, Encina Business Credit LLC signed a lien subordination agreement with PBGC on Encina’s $20 million loan. The agreement identifies that as of Jan. 15, 2017, the Times has an outstanding lien from PBGC for $59,615,990.
So, what you have is a subordination agreement written to basically replace the same subordinated lien that Crystal had with the Times. And for those who don't know, Encina is a lender of last resort, "one step above Tony Soprano’s loan sharking operation," Bleyer says.
In answer to Sunshine State News' questions about the story content, Times Communications and Grants Director Sherri Day replied by email.
"The falsehoods in this piece are too numerous to count so we will respond to one. The only retirement deductions from our employees' paychecks go directly to their 401k accounts at Vanguard, where they can look up their balances any time they like."
Bleyer scoffs at the paper's ethics, noting the local businessmen who came up with the cash -- the ones who have been identified, anyway -- "have been elevated to godlike status" in the paper.
"One investor, Kiran Patel, was the Times “Floridian of the Year” in 2017," he writes. "Out of 20 million residents, Patel was deemed to be the shining star. But in May of last year, two of his businesses paid more than $30 million in a settlement with the federal government after accusations of artificially inflating costs for health care."
Bleyer cites another investor, Jeff Vinik, who "has really gotten his money’s worth. In past trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission on both ethical and legal grounds, Vinik tried to bleed taxpayers on a shady Museum of Science and Industry relocation."
The writer says Vinik's "ineptly named downtown project, 'Water Street Tampa,' is in serious trouble. Insiders say it will be 10 years before it reaches fruition, if at all. But as far as the Times is concerned, the $200 million and counting in taxpayer funding to support Vinik’s “vision” is money well spent."
In the meantime, Bleyer points out, Tash is "living like a Russian oligarch" -- having "sold his posh $1.6 million, Snell Isle waterfront digs and acquired even more lavish quarters, a $1.8 million condo at Vinoy Place in downtown St. Petersburg" and "in late 2016, he reportedly sold that condo for $2.15 million, and is now renting a comparable crib on Beach Drive in St. Pete."
Bleyer promises follow-up stories "on the Times/Poynter slide into bankruptcy."
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith
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