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Distribution of Buffalo Chip employee fund donations questioned

1/20/2016

Tara Alatorre
Staff

CAVE CREEK – The Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek may have reopened its doors last Saturday for the first time since a suspected arson devastated it on Thanksgiving, but a shadow still looms over as it rebuilds not only a bar, but a reputation.

The flames destroyed Cave Creek’s iconic saloon, and the livelihood of 120 employees who lost their job in an instant. The town rallied, and showed overwhelming generosity by raising $58,000 for the Buffalo Chip employees, and then just like wildfire, accusations and rumors spread about the use of those donations.

Marc Peagler, the owner of Frontier Town in Cave Creek, organized an auction and a fundraiser event on Dec. 16, 2015, for the employee fund that had been set up at Foothills Food Bank shortly after the fire.  The auction raised around $25,000, which doesn’t include merchandise sales, and other donations gathered that evening, he said.

“The Buffalo Chip is a part of Cave Creek and we have never had anything like this [fire] happen before,” Peagler said in an email. “That’s why I stepped in to help.”

However, before the checks could clear, before the rubble and ashes of “The Chip” could be swept away, the mud was already flying. Allegations started to surface on social media about the donations being misappropriated, undistributed, and certain employees receiving large amounts of cash to fund vacations and pay off car loans.

“I feel there is a small group of four to five people who are causing unnecessary drama on social media,” said Peagler in an email regarding the allegations that employees were not receiving donations.

There was a week delay in the distribution of funds because of a clerical error in the auction slips gathered, and they needed to wait for the checks and credit card transactions to clear the bank. For a while, the personal donations just kept pouring in and it was hard to even determine an exact total amount donated, according to Peagler.

“How can you know how much to give out when you don’t know how much you are going to have in the end?” he said.

Then on Jan. 4, 2016, ABC15 aired a segment about Buffalo Chip employees claiming they had not received donations yet, and that there was a big discrepancy between the amount actually distributed and the total amount donated. Pamela Lowry worked for the Buffalo Chip one day a week up until the fire, and says first she was denied assistance, and then she was only given $200.

“We were called greedy,” says Lowry in an email interview. “When we were only asking what they were spending it on if they weren’t helping anyone.”

She and other Buffalo Chip employees who are asking to not be named say all the employees were given a $200 check at a meeting on Jan. 6, 2016, which was after the news segment aired, and raised their suspicions further. With the 120 employees Wendt had on the distribution list, that would only be $24,000 that was accounted for. Lowry claims many others were reaching out sharing the same story as her: denied assistance, and then only given a $200 check. 

“We just really want the public to demand where their donations went,” Lowry said.

Furthermore, Lowry and other employees claim that there were never 120 employees on the payroll ever, and can only count around 80 employees at the time of the fire.

“Larry had kept 40 inactive employees on the payroll, for who knows why, those 40 people also received that $200 check,” Lowry asserted. “We feel it’s only right to the public to see how they have been spending the money they made everyone believes was for the staff.”

Kevin Southar has been a bartender at the Buffalo Chip for over five years. Over the last two weeks he has been working to help reopen the bar.  He says everyone received their fair share of the money donated, although he did not disclose an amount.

“It is a great community,” said Southar in an interview. “Everyone got helped, I can’t describe how good it felt.”

Palma DiPietro is the director of the Foothills Food Bank, and she is the only person with authorization to write checks from the fund, and has been managing it since its inception. She gave The Foothills Focus a copy of the check roster with the names and amounts of every check written upon assurance that our newspaper would keep all employees' personal information confidential.

Currently, the fund has paid 71 employees and dispensed just under $42,000 in 59 checks, with about $18,000 left, and more payouts are planned for the upcoming weekend. Larry Wendt has not received any money from this account, according to the check roster.

“We will be dispensing all the funds within the next two weeks,” said DiPietro in an interview. “We are writing the checks and closing the account next week so we don’t need donations. More donations will only confuse the issue on how much everyone receives.”

Although DiPietro is the only person with access to the account, she is writing checks based solely on the instruction of Wendt.  Some employees were receiving larger amounts because they were still actively working for the Buffalo Chip during rebuilding, or based on other criteria Wendt created to help with the disbursement of donations.

“It hurts my feelings that a few disgruntled employees ruined something so beautiful,” said Wendt in an interview. “Every single penny has gone to employees.”

Based on the food bank’s records, the four largest checks written were in amounts ranging from approximately $1,000 to $3,500. Twenty checks were $400 to $999, and the remaining 35 checks were under $400, for a total of $41,307.

Wendt says that not only has he not taken any money for himself or the business, but that he contributed $11,000 of his own money to the fund, and is no longer drawing salary from the Buffalo Chip.

“The first distribution of $11,000 was decided with criteria in mind that would help those most in need, single parents raising families,” he said in an interview.              

Some people were not given the first round of distributed funds, either because they had another job, did not work full time at the Buffalo Chip, or did not participate in fundraiser events. Also, it took time with the arson investigation and reopening process for Wendt to figure out a method to fairly distribute the cash, he says.

“We went above and beyond,” said Wendt. “I am just so appreciative of my staff and this town, for everything.”

The Buffalo Chip has reopened seven days a week from 10 a.m. to midnight, complete with food, beer, bands, and rodeo.