Company loses newspapers, Judge orders Hermes to pay nearly $800K to former owners

Published 1:33 pm Friday, March 18, 2016

Keysville-based Hermes Publications LLC has lost ownership of three weekly newspapers in a lengthy court battle with the publications’ former owner.

The Progress-Index of Petersburg reported last week that Page Publications LLC, owned by Tom and Bobbie Page, had returned as controlling owners of The Dinwiddie Monitor, The Prince George Journal and The Sussex-Surry Dispatch. Page Publications took over the publications on March 4 from Hermes following a two-year legal battle, according to The Progress-Index.

On March 8, Chatham-based Womack Publishing Co. purchased the three newspapers, according to a press release from the firm, which also owns the Times-Virginian in Appomattox and the South Hill Enterprise among its 18 newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina.

Hermes Publications LLC is registered with the Virginia Corporation Commission with a principal office at 490 Railroad Ave. in Keysville, the same address as The Southside Messenger, which distributes in Charlotte, Prince Edward and Lunenburg counties. E. Averett Jones, editor of The Messenger, is Hermes’ registered agent, according to the Corporation Commission’s website.

However, Blackstone attorney Benjamin N. Spence, whose firm Hawthorne & Hawthorne, PC, represents The Messenger, said in a letter and email to The Charlotte Gazette on Friday that “The Southside Messenger is not published by Hermes Publications, LLC, nor is it any way related to that entity.”

Evan Jones, assistant editor of The Messenger and former publisher of The Dinwiddie Monitor, The Prince

George Journal and The Sussex-Surry Dispatch, told a Gazette reporter Monday: “To be perfectly honest with you, Hermes Publications LLC is not The Southside Messenger and has not ever been The Southside Messenger. So, you need to talk with Gary (Elder, an attorney with Hawthorne & Hawthorne), and I’ll direct any comment to Gary.”

Elder couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Messenger’s website on Tuesday morning, four days after Spence’s letter to The Gazette, continued to list “Hermes Publications©” in the newspaper’s logo at the top of the home page.

Websites for The Dinwiddie Monitor and The Sussex-Surry Dispatch, on the day Hermes lost possession of the newspapers, said the newspapers were part of “a family of local newspapers, including … the Southside Messenger.”

The Virginia Press Association’s 2015 Total Media Directory lists Hermes Publications as The Messenger’s owner.

Until Oct. 1, the masthead in The Messenger’s weekly print edition said, “Published weekly except for the week after Christmas by: Hermes Publications, P.O. Box 849, Keysville, VA 23947.” That reference, as well as “Hermes Publications©” in the logo at the top of the front page, were removed in the edition dated Oct. 8, two months before a Dinwiddie County Circuit Court judge ordered Hermes Publications to pay nearly $800,000 to Page Publications LLC.

“Hermes and Page are involved in ongoing litigation and we look forward to resolving those issues in court,” Evan Jones told The Gazette last week.

Attorney James B. Thorsen, who represents Page Publications, said the Pages planned to resume publication of the newspapers last week before Womack Publishing Co. acquired them, even though staff members at the publications were laid off last week by Evan Jones. When asked about the layoffs, Jones declined to comment.

According to The Progress-Index, the legal dispute between Hermes and Page began in 2014, about six months after Hermes bought the three weekly newspapers in December 2013. “The purchase of the newspapers was for $900,000 that involved $150,000 down and a $750,000 promissory note, according to Thorsen and court records,” The Progress-Index reported.

Under the purchase agreement, Hermes Publications was to pay Page Publications $8,547.79 a month for nine years, according to court records. However, Hermes failed to make the monthly payments beginning in May 2014, according to court records.

“Thorsen said the terms of the note permitted arbitration, but required Hermes to continue to make payments and provide for any missed payments to pursue arbitration,” reported the newspaper. “After Hermes could not provide that money, Page Publications filed a civil suit in Dinwiddie County Circuit Court on Nov. 24, 2014. The lawsuit sought $733,196 from Hermes Publications in addition to interest and attorney fees.”

On Dec. 12, Dinwiddie Circuit Court Judge Paul W. Cella ruled in favor of Page Publications and ordered Hermes Publications to pay Page $740,370, according to court records, reported The Progress-Index.

“Eventually, Page Publications filed a writ of possession on Feb. 25 that sought to seize the assets of the three newspapers, including computers, office equipment, billing records and advertising and subscription lists,” the Petersburg newspaper reported. “Dinwiddie County Sheriff’s deputies seized the newspaper property at 20121 Cox Road in Sutherland on March 4.”

The Progress-Index reported that Hermes filed a civil lawsuit against Page in Dinwiddie County Circuit Court in December claiming that Hermes bought the three newspapers under fraudulent circumstances. Specifically, Hermes alleges that the newspapers’ circulation numbers were inflated by Page in documents prior to the sale.

Womack Publishing Director of Operations Chad B. Harrison said in the press release that the company is “pleased that we were able to acquire three outstanding community newspapers and continue the long tradition of public service they have provided their communities.”