Ice Is Nice

Russian carver Edward Ponomarenko is silhouetted by the setting sun as he works on his sculpture for the Independent Open Class event at the 2017 BP World Ice Art Championships. 

FAIRBANKS — The Ice Alaska nonprofit organization filed a lawsuit Monday against three of the ice carving competition’s previous leaders, alleging — among other civil charges — that they “intentionally” put Ice Alaska into debt for the purpose of taking possession of the Ice Park, other real estate, and equipment.

Ice Alaska seeks at least $2 million in damages, which is the value of a grant the organization received from the Alaska Legislature in 2006, according to the 25-page lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Fairbanks. The lawsuit names as defendants former Ice Alaska board leaders Hank Bartos, Dick Brickley and Hoa Brickley, as well as Brickley business D&H Enterprises, LLC. It also names “John/Jane Does 1-10,” placeholders for people not currently being sued but who could be added to the suit.

Ice Alaska, through attorneys Bill Satterberg and Amy Welch, alleges that Bartos and the Brickleys “knowingly and unlawfully engaged in a series of fraudulent transactions to acquire Ice Alaska’s personal assets, the Phillips Field property and other properties, with the use of state grant money.”

Reached on Tuesday afternoon, Bartos said the allegations against him are false.

“What I see is defamation. I’m going to be countersuing,” he said.

Bartos complained about the timing of the lawsuit, which came a week ahead of local elections in which he is running for a seat on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly.

The Brickleys didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story but have responded to past criticism of their financial management of the ice carving event with the argument that they’ve given far more to the organization than the value of the property they received. They’ve argued that their generosity in acting as a bank of last resort for the organization was necessary to keep the event alive.

“Dick Brickley and I personally visited every bank in Fairbanks, all six of them. We completed volumes of financial forms, yet not one of the financial institutions would agree to loan Ice Alaska any money. Therefore, the Brickleys have continued to loan Ice Alaska money,” Hoa Brickley wrote in a response to a 2012 audit that was critical of the conflict of interest created by an organization’s board president and business manager, Dick and Hoa, loaning an organization much of its money.

“The Brickleys have personally donated more than $300,000 to Ice Alaska plus literally 1,000s of volunteer hours. To think there is a conflict of interest is clearly mistaken,” she said.

In addition to the money from the $2 million state grant, Ice Alaska seeks triple these damages as permitted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a 1970 federal law created to prosecute organized crime, usually known by the acronym RICO. The lawsuit also asks the court to place the Ice Park on Phillips Field Road and additional properties owned by the organization’s former leaders into a trust.

Although Monday’s lawsuit alleges criminal conduct, no prosecutor has accused them of criminal conduct.


Lawsuit timing

In addition to being a few days before an election in which Bartos is a candidate, the lawsuit came one day before the third anniversary of the George Horner Ice Park Ice Park property changing hands from the Ice Alaska nonprofit to D&H Enterprises. The filing came just in time to avoid being prohibited by Alaska’s statute of limitations on civil contract lawsuits.

The Ice Alaska board had been discussing filing a lawsuit against the Brickleys over the ownership of the Ice Park property since January when Bartos was still the organization’s board president. In July, Ice Alaska members elected an almost entirely new set of directors that included several out-of-state ice sculptors. Bernie Karl, president of Chena Hot Springs Resort and a longtime critic of the Brickley-Bartos leadership at Ice Alaska, was named president.


'Intentional' mismanagement?

Concerns about Ice Alaska’s use of the $2 million in state funds date back to the purchase of the property in 2011. A 2012 state-required audit by Fairbanks accounting firm Wilson & Wilson concluded the organization had problems with conflict of interest, with record keeping and with accruing debt without authorization from the board of directors.

But in an interview with the Daily News-Miner this summer, Rockne Wilson, the writer of the critical audit, said he didn’t see evidence the Brickleys acted in bad faith or that they profited by loaning money to Ice Alaska and later forgiving the debt in exchange for the property.

“I suspect that they never made any money on this,” he said at the time. “I don’t think they’re making any money now.”

The lawsuit alleges the Brickleys did enrich themselves through Ice Alaska and ascribes motive to their actions, stating the defendants “intentionally caused Ice Alaska to become indebted (to the Brickleys) in order to acquire those parcels of land as well as personal assets belonging to Ice Alaska.”

The RICO section of the civil complaint further accuses Bartos and the Brickleys of coercing the board of directors to give up the ice park through the implicit threat that the volunteer board members could be held personally liable for the debt to D&H if they didn’t agree to give up the property.

The suit’s accusations of “unjust enrichment” fall mainly on the Brickleys, who received ownership of the Ice Park property. But the lawsuit argues Bartos improperly received partial ownership of a 20-acre North Pole property off of Mistletoe Drive shortly after Ice Alaska bought the Phillips Field Road property in June 2011. Like the Phillips Field Road park, the North Pole property was owned by the George Horner family. Bartos, a real estate agent, has said he brokered the Ice Park purchase without receiving a commission.

The lawsuit describes the North Pole property transfer as a potential kickback to both Bartos and the Brickleys for getting Ice Alaska to pay $2.27 million for the Ice Park land, which had an assessed value of $681,000.

“The coincidental timing of this transfer raises concerns that the transfer of the North Pole property was related to the inflated sale price of the Phillips Field property,” the lawsuit states. 


A year without the World Ice Art Championships

Founded in 1990, the World Ice Art Championship grew to become one of the largest Fairbanks winter events for both locals and tourists.

After losing ownership of the Ice Park in 2015, Ice Alaska leased the park from the Brickleys in 2016 and 2017 but was unable to reach a lease agreement in 2018. Last year the board also cited a December 2016 fire at the park headquarters and a loss of sponsors as reasons for the 2018 cancellation.

Bartos, a longtime friend of the Brickleys, initially stayed with the Ice Alaska nonprofit organization. He stated last winter he parted ways with the Brickleys in the fall of 2017 when lease negotiations soured. Bartos left the Ice Alaska board before its July 2018 board elections.

Ice Alaska is working to finalize an agreement to hold the 2019 World Ice Art Championships at the Tanana Valley State Fairgrounds, Karl, the current board president, said.

Karl declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

“We tell everyone they should read the (civil) complaint. The complaint is really pretty self-explanatory. We’re going to make Ice Alaska great again. We just need to get back our assets, and that’s what we hope to do,” he said.

“The fair is where we should have been to begin with. Ice Alaska spent a couple million dollars and has nothing to show for it,” he said. “If we would have spent $2 million, it would have helped the fair, it would have helped this community.”

The Brickleys held their own, smaller, ice carving event at the Ice Park in 2018. The lawsuit alleges that as recently as March 2018 the Brickleys were continuing to do damage to the Ice Alaska organization by using the Ice Alaska name, logo, images and merchandise without permission at their Ice Museum on Second Avenue.

Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors