Ousted View Point partners under fire
- Calvin Hall
- Gresham Outlook - News
Former employees describe pattern of extravagant spending, inability to pay debts
Before a bankruptcy court converted the Chapter 11 bankruptcy case of former View Point Inn owner Geoff Thompson to Chapter 7, Thompson and partner Angelo Simione promised to pay back all the creditors of the fire-damaged inn, which did not have insurance.
They also sought at least $1 million in public donations to rebuild the inn's damaged roof and rooms, and claimed they had widespread support from the community and around the world.
But court documents revealed that Thompson owes upward of $2.9 million to hundreds of creditors - including government agencies, local businesses and people who held or who were planning to hold events at the inn.
Of that amount, Thompson owes $2.8 million in secured debt, including a federal tax lien of almost $104,000, at least five state tax liens, at least nine judgment liens and other trust deeds and mortgages. He also owes unsecured debt totaling almost $128,000, as well as money to at least 188 creditors with 'unknown' claims.
Now, as a court trustee works to determine the inn's future, those creditors wonder if they'll get any money back.
Contractors, businesses owed money
The creditors holding the 20-largest claims include JP Morgan Chase Bank, the U.S. Department of Justice, the state of Oregon and several Portland-area businesses.
Corbett resident Dick Wand is among those 20 creditors. His construction company, Dick Wand Construction, performed about $10,000 worth of work at the View Point Inn four years ago, and he's been trying to get the money through a lien. He's seeking $20,000 to $30,000, he said.
'We've spent almost as much on attorney's fees as what they owe us,' he said.
Both Wand and his nephew, Matt Wand, a Gresham attorney who is representing him in the case, have been subjected to personal attacks from Thompson and Simione, with the latter calling them homophobic and accusing them of pursuing a personal vendetta for trying to be paid.
'We didn't do it to put them out of business,' Dick Wand said about the lien, the first he's ever placed on a client. 'It was to get our money that they refused to pay.'
Roland Cartisser, corporation president of Tri-County Electric in Boring, said he's also been threatened and accused of homophobia by Thompson and Simione during his many attempts to recover the money they owed him for electrical work his company performed at the inn over the last several years. Tri-County Electric, also among the top-20 creditors, is seeking at least $13,000, along with legal fees, he said.
'My livelihood owes to us collecting money,' Cartisser said, noting that his grandfather was the general contractor on the View Point Inn when it was built in the 1920s.
'If (clients) don't have the money, they will try to work things out with me and make payments,' Cartisser said. However, when Cartisser would try to collect his money from Thompson and Simione, they would stop paying after a while. Thompson even threatened him several times. Cartisser keeps a tape of one nasty message that Thompson left on his voicemail.
Frank Bocchetti, president of Bocchetti Contracting in Oregon City, is another top-20 creditor owed about $40,000 for remodeling work he did at the inn five years ago, although he has since stopped adding up the total costs in attorney's fees and interest.
Both Cartisser and Wand, who have been in business for about 40 years, said they've never dealt with clients like Thompson and Simione before. Wand cites his flawless record with the state Construction Contractors Board as well as his longtime presence in East County.
Bocchetti, who has been in business for 11 years, said he's dealt with clients going into bankruptcy, but Simione and Thompson have cost him the most money.
'I'm very cautious who I build for,' Bocchetti said. 'I learned a lot (from that experience).'
High spending part of inn
When angry creditors would call the View Point Inn to get their money, Jennifer O'Connell was usually the one who had to answer the phone.
O'Connell worked at the inn from July 2008 to December 2009. Initially hired as an office assistant, O'Connelll became the inn's business operations manager when the bookkeeper, who had a previous conviction for embezzlement, quit. While in charge of overseeing the inn's books, O'Connell learned how bad things were.
O'Connell said Thompson used the inn's revenue for his own personal expenses: car payments, health insurance, his home mortgage, gym memberships, tanning salon visits and dinners and movies with Simione. When deposits for weddings and events came in, Thompson cashed them immediately, she said.
After Thompson's personal expenses - which he classified as business expenses that could average $25,000 a month - the leftover money went to paying the inn's immediate bills and the employees, O'Connell said.
'They get to live a life most people don't get to live at the expense of the employees and the inn,' she said.
O'Connell said the inn earned about $1.5 million to $2 million a year in gross revenue; it wasn't a long shot for the inn to bring in $250,000 in a summer month. However, the inn operated at a loss every year she worked there. In fiscal year 2009, she said, the inn lost around $162,000.
O'Connell estimated that she answered calls from about 90 percent of the inn's creditors, including the businesses and wedding guests. Thompson never voluntarily took the calls himself, she said.
'I got screamed at more times than I care to think about,' she said.
After one bill collector threatened to break O'Connell's legs, Thompson and Simione sent out a letter to their creditors. In the letter, dated Sept. 30, 2008, Thompson and Simione blamed the economy and the crash in the mortgage industry for the inn's financial troubles and asked creditors to give them 30 to 90 days to find the money.
'We have gone to investors, banks, everyone possible looking for the capital we have needed,' they wrote. 'It is just not out there and available to the View Point Inn at this time.
'Please limit your angry and impatient calls. Pursuing legal action, threatening to break the legs of our office assistant (this has happened), will paralyze our business and inhibit us by further jeopardizing our ability to capitalize the inn. We owe you money and you will be paid, but please give us the continued space and time to do so.'
Thompson and Simione also asked creditors to help them find an investor, as the inn was 'a viable, bankable entity that warrants the support.' They concluded by writing, 'Bankruptcy is not an option. Getting the funding we need to save the View Point Inn is the only option.'
O'Connell said the recession did affect the inn's finances. While other wedding and event venues in the Portland area lowered their prices, Thompson raised the inn's minimum fees, pricing out small weddings and events. When O'Connell started working at the inn, the minimum food and drink cost and the site fee were both $5,000; when she left, those prices averaged $7,500.
'The economy turns bad and you decide to raise prices, and you wonder why your wedding business falls off?' O'Connell said.
O'Connell said she and fellow employees attempted to get Thompson to cut his spending. One suggestion was that he live on a reduced salary and rent out his private home as a vacation spot. But Thompson refused, saying it was his right and privilege as owner of the inn, O'Connell said.
'You can only say so much, and you have to be very careful with how you handle (Thompson),' she said. 'I don't think I've cried as much in my life as when I worked there.'
Thompson constantly came up with get-rich-quick schemes for the inn, O'Connell said. One idea was to bring in actors Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, from the 'Twilight' films, and charge customers $1,000 a plate to dine with them. The inn was featured in the first 'Twilight' movie.
The news that the inn didn't have insurance when the July 17 fire broke out doesn't surprise O'Connell. The inn was lucky to even have insurance when the fire on Dec. 14, 2008, broke out, she said.
The inn's former insurance policy had been canceled in November because of non-payment, so the inn was put on a new insurance policy on Dec. 1. The inn financially made it through that winter only because of that insurance money, O'Connell said.
'It was really good timing, you could say,' she said.
Attempts to pay back creditors
To assuage the inn's creditors, Thompson allowed O'Connell to pay out small amounts to each creditor with checks ranging from 50 cents to $50. It was never for the full amount owed.
East Portland resident Richard Von Allmen is one of the creditors paid in this manner.
Von Allmen and his wife, Liliane, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with about 58 guests at the View Point Inn in September 2008. They had to pay $2,000 up front and then $6,167 to cover the anniversary's expenses, including food and drink.
Von Allmen said he and his wife were told they could take any leftover food home with them. When the party finished, however, he saw that staff had already taken all the food, including the leftovers of a $400 cake that his son and daughter-in-law had purchased for the event.
In the end, the anniversary cost $7,979.60, so Von Allmen was owed $187.40. He received only two checks afterward, bringing the total down to $151.70.
Von Allmen, a 75-year-old retired firefighter, is still seeking the $151.70 as one of the creditors with 'unknown' claims.
'They don't really owe me a lot, but it's the principle of it,' Von Allmen said, noting that he's since told others about his experience and encouraged them not to go to the inn.
There may be more people with similar stories who did not file claims against the View Point Inn.
Damascus resident Russ Boehmer said he paid a $1,000 security deposit for his daughter's wedding at the View Point Inn in May 2008. Boehmer was told he was owed $400 to $500 but never received a payment, although he was promised that he would get the money back.
Boehmer, a retired Multnomah County Sheriff's Office sergeant, called the inn every week through the end of October 2008. Thompson told him the check was in the mail, but it never arrived. He finally gave up and did not pursue legal action, he said.
Employees have bad situation
O'Connell recalled a work environment at the View Point Inn in which she and her fellow employees were frequently subjected to verbal and emotional abuse from Thompson, often in front of inn guests. The inn had 25 to 30 employees, yet O'Connell estimates she processed about 200 W-2 forms for the 2009 tax year because of the high turnover rate.
Many employees quit after realizing they would not get paid on time, or because of the verbal abuse from Thompson. Whenever an employee gave his or her two weeks notice, she said, Thompson would fire the employee almost immediately, meaning that he had to pay their unemployment benefits.
Other employees endured Thompson's verbal and emotional abuse. Thompson allegedly often referred to an Iraqi janitor as a member of al-Qaida. Thompson and Simione frequently mocked a gay event coordinator, O'Connell said.
Despite the inn's financial success, O'Connell said hourly employees earned minimum wage, while the staff were paid below industry standards, especially taking into consideration the long hours they worked. Employees had to work more than 40 hours a week, as Thompson and Simione expected their main priority to be the inn.
Chefs earned $40,000 to $45,000 a year and could expect 80-hour workweeks, she said. O'Connell earned $36,000 a year but on average worked 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., six to seven days a week. Her children, then 3 and 6 years old, often wondered why she was never home. Thompson would even leave angry messages on her home answering machine, which her children would overhear, she said.
'I never got paid on payday; no one ever got paid on payday,' she said, adding that she always had to tell the other staff that they weren't being paid. Employees were lucky to get their paychecks two or three days later, she said, and the paychecks frequently bounced.
'We worked as long as physically possible without getting paid,' she said.
Even on the day of her Saturday evening wedding in October 2009, which was held at the View Point Inn, O'Connell had to go into work. Despite a promise that she would get a week off for her honeymoon, Thompson told her just before the wedding that she couldn't take the week off. O'Connell got two days off for her honeymoon and was back at work by Tuesday.
However, O'Connell said she and other employees felt an obligation to make the inn succeed, despite Thompson and Simione's management.
When Thompson and Simione were forced to close the inn in November 2009 because of the inn's mounting bills, she and other employees had not received paychecks since early October. O'Connell said they did not receive their final paycheck until January 2010 - long after Christmas and New Year's.
View Point Inn in limbo
O'Connell is among 29 former employees of the inn who have filed claims through the state Bureau of Labor and Industries. Thompson and Simione owe $150,254.10 in back wages and penalties, according to court documents.
Bob Estabrook, spokesman for BOLI, said it has to wait to see how the debts will be handled as part of the bankruptcy process. He said three other former View Point Inn employees also filed claims with BOLI.
When asked about O'Connell's comments, Thompson dismissed her as a disgruntled employee and said his staff was always treated as No. 1. He declined to comment on the other creditors in this story.
'I'm not interested in continuing this scandalous, slanderous reporting,' he said before hanging up. After calling back, Thompson said, '(The inn) will recover and it will re-open.'
O'Connell said she thought about suing, but 'it became another situation of was it worth becoming another person standing in line.'
Instead, she wanted to move past her experience at the View Point Inn and let it be over. That was until she saw Thompson and Simione on television after the fire, begging for money to save the inn: 'Now I kind of wish we had.'
Thompson and Simione dismissed all the negative criticism and attention on them since the fire, claiming they've had far more positive attention and support, including from 'Twilight' fans upset over the fire at the historic inn.
'If you got haters, you're doing something right,' Thompson said, adding that his ability to pay anyone back disappeared when his Chapter 11 bankruptcy converted to Chapter 7.
The Oregonian reported Thursday, July 21, that any new owners of the inn must make several repairs to the inn before a March 2012 deadline to keep it open.
Since Thompson and Simione appealed for $1 million in donations to save the inn, Simione said they received around $1,000. Whatever momentum their drive had stopped after the Chapter 7 bankruptcy, he said.
Just a few days after the inn's fire, Thompson and Simione attached to the side of the inn a large copy of their letter, criticizing local, state and national politicians for not helping them rebuild.
On July 19, Thompson posted a video to YouTube, appealing to President Barack Obama for help saving his 'small business' while blasting the U.S. Congress.
O'Connell doesn't believe Thompson and Simione would ever pay anyone back even if Thompson was still under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. She is unsurprised by the stories that other creditors have about the inn.
'As crazy as you think it might be, it's the truth,' she said.
'I'm not counting my money yet because there are so many (creditors),' Cartisser said. 'If I had to estimate what we'll get out of this, I would say zero.'
Bocchetti doubted that he'd get his $40,000 back. But he would rather walk away from that money than see the View Point Inn stay open under Thompson and Simione, he said.
'That's fine, knowing they're out of business,' he said.