Staff sues, then walks out on the Rhino Club

by Jordan Green

The Rhinoceros Club, a storied downtown Greensboro bar and music venue, lost its staff in mid-June when its former general manager resigned along with three bartenders at the culmination of the group’s successful efforts to recover back pay from their employer.

Two other employees had already resigned at the time of the payout.

General manager Michael Umphenour said he pleaded with manager John Horshok, his boss, to straighten out payroll problems before he and five other employees decided to hire a lawyer and turn to the courts for relief. Around the time Horshok arranged for them to receive their money, bartenders one after the other decided to walk off the job, leaving Umphenour without a staff and prompting him to draft his resignation letter on June 14.

Umphenour and bartender Mark Weddle said their lawsuit and ultimate departure were prompted by Horshok’s cavalier attitude about payroll as the company, The Rhino Legends, attempted to address other debts. Umphenour said in April he protested that there was no money for payroll when he said Horshok expressed relief to him that the company was finally back on secure financial footing.

‘“He said, ‘That’s all right, at least we’ve got our priorities straight; we’re going to remain open,”” Umphenour recounted. ‘“I got two daughters that I pay child support for that I love very much. Here I am going month to month not being able to get paid. It’s caused a lot of issues with my ex-wife, and now I’ve got to go to court on that.’”

Horshok, who was reached on his cell phone in Washington, DC on June 23, declined to comment on the lawsuit and subsequent walkout except to say that the employees have been repaid.

The employees’ efforts to get their money took on additional urgency when Umphenour ran across a letter from the NC Corporations Division stating that The Rhino Legends had been administratively dissolved.

‘“These guys were going out of business, and screw everybody else,’” he said. ‘“No.’”

A spokesman for the Corporations Division, George Jeter, confirmed that The Rhino Legends, whose principal mailing address matches that of the Rhinoceros Club on South Greene Street, was dissolved on May 5. He said there is nothing illegal about operating a business that is no longer incorporated with the state, but doing so forfeits certain tax benefits and legal protections afforded by incorporation.

Ian Bunker, who was formerly employed as the general manager of Wild Magnolia’s Café, told YES! Weekly he accepted the job of general manager at the Rhinoceros Club on June 16, replacing Umphenour two days after his resignation. Bunker said he expects the bar to remain open.

A week into Bunker’s employment, more misfortune struck the Rhinoceros Club. On June 24, Bunker reported to the police that $200 was stolen from the bar. A police incident report indicates that the bar was broken into by non-forcible entry.

Six employees filed suit against The Rhino Legends, Horshok and a third defendant, William Collins of Fairfax County, Va. who is named in the lawsuit as a manager of the company. The plaintiffs include bartenders Brandi Anglemyer, Leigh Ann Genaway, Adam Topp and Mark Weddle, and barback Andrew McNeal, in addition to Umphenour and Weddle. According to the lawsuit, McNeal received an hourly wage of $6, while the bartenders were paid $4.50 an hour plus tips, and Umphenour received an annual salary of $19,500 that was raised to $21,500 in February.

The lawsuit requests $12,563 for unpaid wages and salaries, an additional $12,563 for breach of contract and compensation for attorney’s fees. Umphenour said the amount requested by the lawsuit totaled $35,600.

The lawsuit also states that the plaintiffs believe The Rhino Legends is facing insolvency and has incurred federal and state tax liabilities of about $13,600.

Umphenour’s description of Horshok’s response to their requests for pay suggests a pattern of evasions and shell games. Jerry Burkot, whom Umphenour identified as Collins’ personal assistant, came down from Greensboro and infused some cash into the operation, the former general manager said. He added that Burkot assured the staff that Collins would make sure they got paid soon.

After that, when he asked Horshok for pay, he was directed to Burkot, Umphenour said. Yet when he called Burkot, he would be directed back to Horshok. Finally, he said he got the two together on a conference call and they promised again that Collins would get them the money. Both employees said they believe Collins is the majority owner of The Rhino Legends.

‘“Collins was aware of what was going on in 2004, and he wanted it straightened out,’” said Umphenour, who was hired in October 2004.

Umphenour said Horshok and Collins met as college freshmen. Collins is listed as a 1972 graduate of George Washington University. From 1972 through 1974, he played professional baseball for the Milwaukee Brewers.

The former general manager said he has never been able to track Collins down.

Collins was the principal owner of the Greensboro Hornets/Bats, the minor league baseball team that was the predecessor of the Greensboro Grasshoppers in the 1990s. Horshok was the team’s chief operating officer. Burkot was also employed as the team’s public relations director for a period of time.

Burkot was reached at a northern Virginia phone number by YES! Weekly on June 23. Identifying himself as a representative of Collins Companies, he declined to confirm that Collins is the majority owner of The Rhino Legends.

Collins is well known in the Washington, DC area as the northern Virginia financier who led the failed effort to bring a major league baseball team to Virginia. More recently, Collins has reportedly led a group of investors seeking to buy the new Washington Nationals baseball franchise, contending against other high profile investor groups that variously include former Secretary of State Colin Powell and financier George Soros. On June 1, Collins was replaced by Albert Lord, chairman of the student loan company Sallie Mae, as head of one of the investment groups seeking to acquire the Nationals, according to a recent story in the Washington Post.

According to a company press release, Collins was terminated in 2003 from his position as CEO of Metrocall Wireless, a telecommunications company based in Alexandria, Va. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce confirmed that he is a former member of the chamber’s board of directors. She provided a forwarding phone number for Collins Companies; a call there was answered by Burkot.

A message left with Burkot for Collins was not returned at press time.

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