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In Jewish Times bankruptcy, longtime collaborators become foes

Their great-grandfathers each founded Baltimore companies, a publisher and a printer, and their families have built close ties working together since the 1950s to produce the venerable Baltimore Jewish Times.

But Andrew Alter Buerger and Charles M. Roebuck III have been doing most of their talking in the last few years through lawyers — through bankruptcy filings, lawsuits both corporate and personal, through legal motions and appeals to the state's second-highest court. What had appeared to be a successful business relationship has become a "nasty, 50-year-old marriage," as Buerger put it.

Things had gotten so bad between Buerger, publisher of the Jewish Times and Style magazine, and Roebuck, president of H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc., his former printer and now a key creditor, that a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge said from the bench last month that the case looks less like a bankruptcy than a divorce. And both sides seem to want to continue antagonizing each other, he said.

For now, they're talking. They recently met in a lawyer's conference room downtown in an attempt to make peace. Not because they've rekindled some old friendship, but because Judge James F. Schneider gave the order: Draft a plan to take the publisher, Alter Communications Inc., out of Chapter 11 and bring the proposal in by Oct. 21 — or he would name a trustee to run the business.

No one would want a trustee, the judge said. No one seems to want the Baltimore Jewish Times to go under, either, but the fate and the ownership of the publication that has been covering the Jewish community for nearly a century has been clouded as the feud between the two families has escalated since 2009. Last year, Alter filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of a $362,000 breach-of-contract judgment in a lawsuit brought by Roebuck.

The Jewish Times claims about 8,500 paying subscribers to the print edition, and hand-to-hand circulation five times as high. Even if the demise of the weekly, which recently switched from tabloid newspaper to magazine format, seems a remote possibility, some in the Jewish community worry.

"There is a great deal of concern about that," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"There is some level of anxiety that it could potentially go away," added Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. He said his organization, like the community, "values the balance and comprehensive coverage of the news that the Baltimore Jewish Times has provided for the last 90 years."

But Schneider, in rejecting both bankruptcy plans submitted by the two sides last month, made clear he won't approve a plan unless it assures the Jewish Times' survival. The question is under what terms.

That is partly in the hands of two men who run their respective family businesses.

Buerger, 46, who had been running a family-owned Jewish paper in Vancouver, British Columbia, returned to Baltimore in 1996 to take over after his father, Charles, died shortly after heart surgery at 58. Roebuck, 45, said that after working in the business as a kid and young man, he left for a few years, then rejoined the company in 1992, working at first alongside his father, Charles Jr., who is 71.

Buerger is Jewish, and Roebuck is not, a point raised several times during the three-day hearing before Schneider last month. Although several witnesses for Alter said they thought a Jewish publication should have Jewish owners, the judge took umbrage at the suggestion that ethnicity should play a role in the outcome of the case.

The two men have acquaintances in common, and their brothers went to school together at Gilman. Their fathers knew each other in college in Pittsburgh, at the school that became Carnegie Mellon University. For years the great-grandsons of the 1919 founders, Harry Goodman Roebuck and David Alter, had what Roebuck described as a friendly "business relationship."

There's been no malice, Roebuck said.

"There's never been a personal aspect of things," said Roebuck. "I've never felt personally attacked. I hope Andrew doesn't either, because that's never been a thought in our head."

Buerger sees it differently.

"They're suing me personally," he said in an interview with The Sun in September. "Oh, it's personal, it's very personal."

Asked last week what made it personal, Buerger demurred, in light of the discussions now going on to fashion a bankruptcy plan.

"I'll save that one for after the negotiations are over," he said. "I want to keep it civil."

Signs of the relationship's deterioration emerged in the summer of 2008, in emails that flew back and forth for months between Buerger and his production manager, Erin Clare, and Charles Roebuck. Clare mostly pointed out technical problems in printing, while Buerger complained about both printing quality and price, and his tone grew increasingly sharp.

The emails written between July 2008 and March 2009 are included as exhibits in the case file of the lawsuit, which has moved from Baltimore County Circuit Court to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Roebuck appealed after the lower court in December 2009 denied breach-of-contract claims made personally against Buerger and his aunt, Susan Patchen, both of whom signed the 10-year contract that was effective starting March 2001.

Patchen has since sold her interest in the business, and Roebuck has dropped their case against her. A $1.2 million damages claim against Buerger stands, however.

In a July 2, 2008, message — the earliest of the emails included as an exhibit in the case — Buerger asks for a $200 credit and refers to past printing problems: "There is a pattern here and it's unacceptable. You have problem in your organization that goes beyond late mailing labels."

Buerger seems more exasperated by early 2009, and he makes clear that he had started working with Fry Communications Inc., the Mechanicsburg, Pa., printer to whom Alter eventually transferred all its business. In a message to Roebuck on Feb. 7, 2009, Buerger said: "Once again, we are very disappointed with both your printing and your extreme pricing. … Your prices are not in the least competitive."

On Feb. 18, 2009, Buerger wrote: "It's bad enough that we have to pay 60% more for our printing during this financial crisis, but we will not allow you to harm our advertising relationships."

Buerger claimed in the emails that production problems were harming his business because of the poor quality of printed advertisements. In a deposition included in the court file, however, Buerger could not name any advertiser or subscriber who canceled accounts because of poor printing quality, nor could he put a dollar figure on what printing problems may have cost Alter in lost business.

Alter's fortunes have suffered in the general economic decline and the slump that has hit print publications in particular. A 1996 article in The Sun on Buerger's taking over for his late father reported the Jewish Times circulation as 20,000, more than double the current figure. The bankruptcy filing last spring culminated years of contraction during which Alter laid off 20 employees, leaving a staff of about 40.

"We're down to the bone. … We're done cutting," Buerger told The Sun in April 2010 when Alter filed for bankruptcy protection.

By then, efforts by Buerger to settle the contract dispute with Roebuck had failed. The $362,000 Circuit Court judgment — the amount Roebuck said Alter owed for printing costs — was the last straw, Buerger said.

The 2001 contract was the result of an earlier attempt by Buerger to break with Roebuck and switch to Fry. That also resulted in a lawsuit, which Roebuck brought in 1999 and also won. The result was a choice: Either Buerger — whose business was then called Jewish Times Inc. — paid Roebuck a sum of money, or sign another contract. Buerger chose the latter, Roebuck said.

This time, though, the broken contract has been more damaging for both sides. Roebuck has lost his company's largest single client. Alter has to figure out a way to stay in business while paying some 40 creditors, and hopes to fend off efforts by Roebuck to own a piece of their business.

Roebuck proposed to the bankruptcy court a 55-45 ownership split, with Alter having the option of buying another 5 percent for an even split. Alter proposed no change in ownership.

The two men and their lawyers met in person in late September in a conference room in the downtown office of Roebuck's lawyer, William L. Hallam. Buerger described the meeting as "cordial." Roebuck called it an "ice-breaking session."

"We had a nice, frank start to our conversation," Roebuck said.

The two sides agreed on three goals: to keep Alter afloat, to pay creditors as much as possible, and as Alter lawyer Maria Ruark put it, "to try to reach resolution of all open issues so these parties can go their separate ways in peace."

Ruark could not say if going "separate ways" means that Roebuck would relinquish further designs on owning a piece of Alter Communications. Buerger said he did understand it that way, but Roebuck said it's not so clear. Depending on how payments are arranged, Roebuck said, it's possible he would keep a temporary ownership stake.

The meeting went 60 to 90 minutes, as the three accounts variously recall. Since then Buerger and Roebuck have exchanged emails.

"I would imagine there'll be a lot that gets done between now and two weeks," said Roebuck. "I hope so, at least."

Readers, too, look forward to good news from the federal courthouse.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation said he considers the Jewish Times the "office water cooler for the community," a must-read for anyone who wants to know what's going on in Jewish Baltimore. On Fridays, when the Jewish Times arrives in the mail at the shul in Pikesville, he considers it an urgent matter.

"It's not something I'll put aside and say, 'I'll get to it later,'" said Wohlberg, whose synagogue of more than 1,300 members calls itself the largest modern Orthodox congregation in the United States. "It's something I want to see right away."

It's hard to think of Baltimore without it, he said. It would be an "irreplaceable loss."

Sun reporter Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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