More than two years after hauling away construction debris from the site of the new Harkins 11 Luxury Theatres in Flagstaff, Barb and Tom Vlahopoulos are still waiting to be paid by the Scottsdale theater chain.
The original bill? Around $7,000.
Barb Vlahopoulos has taken her case to the media, even going so far as to ask the White House and Hollywood television sitcom staffs to boycott the Arizona theaters.
She says the amount of money Harkins allegedly owes -- more than $12,000 with late fees -- is a pittance in the theater chain's scheme of things.
"It's popcorn money," she says.
But to Hog-Wash Waste Systems, the mom-and-pop business that the couple owned in Flagstaff, the July 1997 bill was substantial, representing about a third of its monthly billings.
And while Harkins Theatres, the largest independent theater chain in the Southwest, certainly can cover the sum (one estimate puts its annual operating revenues at $7 million), the company says it's the Vlahopouloses who have been uncooperative and that they're more interested in publicity than getting paid.
"They've made it very difficult," says David Farren, the Phoenix attorney representing Harkins.
Barb Vlahopoulos says she has appealed to local newspaper reporters in Flagstaff and Phoenix. A Flagstaff paper ran a story two years ago on the problems Hog-Wash and 50 other subcontractors were having getting paid for their work on the theater project, but no consumer reporter or columnist has responded to her requests for a follow-up since then.
And in a mass e-mailing December 29, Vlahopoulos broadened her scope, urging news organizations, elected officials and others not to patronize Harkins theaters because of the bill-paying problems in Flagstaff. Included on the list were local broadcast outlets, network newsmagazines and talk shows, other television shows like The West Wing and Veronica's Closet and elected officials including President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Farren says Harkins doesn't owe the debt and that a California general contractor, Martin J. Jaska Construction, does. But that company walked off the delay-riddled job before it was finished and has since filed for bankruptcy.
Harkins took a while sorting through the mess and trying to figure out who was owed money, Farren says. At one time, according to the January 1998 article in Flagstaff's Arizona Daily Sun, more than 50 subcontractors had filed liens against Harkins Theatres or owner Dan Harkins in an effort to collect more than $1 million in billings.
Farren says Harkins has been able to settle all but one of those bills -- the Hog-Wash account. He says the Vlahopouloses have acted unreasonably, declining offers of settlement and at one point refusing to come to his office to pick up a check. (They say when they called to inquire about the check, someone in Farren's office told them there was no check there.)
"Harkins has been and is willing to pay. . . . They could have had their money a long time ago," he says.
The Vlahopouloses sold Hog-Wash two years ago and now live in Payson where they operate another waste business. Barb Vlahopoulos, who handles the books while her husband does the hauling, says the quality of their work on the Flagstaff job was never called into question.
They don't want to spend a fortune on a lawyer trying to collect a few thousand dollars, she says. But they don't want to just let the bill go -- she says they spent their own money ($5,000 alone on landfill dumping fees) and they think they should be paid.
"We've never been burned so bad by anybody," Barb Vlahopoulos says.
Vlahopoulos says she had billed Jaska Construction in smaller monthly amounts (around $3,000, she says) during construction of the Woodland Village movie complex. Those bills were always paid. But Jaska abandoned the project toward the end of the work, when the bulk of the debris needed to be hauled quickly in preparation for the grand opening. Tony Vlahopoulos put in an all-out effort -- even showing up at 4 a.m. -- to help get the theaters opened on time, she says. (Despite those and other efforts, the theaters did not pass city inspections in time for the announced grand opening on July 2, 1997. Customers who showed up were given free passes for a later date.)
Barb Vlahopoulos says when that final bill -- $6,908 -- was not paid, she filed a lien July 23, 1997, against Harkins for the contract amount and late fees.
Correspondence and documents show a confusing back-and-forth dispute.
At first, Harkins claimed it wasn't aware of the billing and promised to look into it. Then, in a September 29, 1997, letter, the chain responded: "Enclosed is your full payment for the month of July 1997 . . ." The bad news: No check was included.
Later, Hog-Wash was informed that if it would release the lien on the property, the bill would be paid. But Harkins wanted Barb Vlahopoulos to sign the release before getting the check. She wanted the check before she released the lien.
By March 1998, attorney Farren was involved in the case, demanding that Hog-Wash drop its lien. He told the Vlahopouloses that the lien was not legally filed. Another settlement offer was made, but the Vlahopolouses say they never got a check, so they continued with the claim, by then nearly $8,000 with late fees, they say.
That's when the Harkins people sent two faxes to the couple, telling them to call Farren and arrange to pick up a check at the attorney's office. Barb Vlahopoulos says Farren never called her and that when she called his office, she was told there was no check.
Farren says the check sat there for some time, and he eventually sent it back to the Harkins corporate office.
Then Harkins began demanding payment from Hog-Wash -- and a stop to the media campaign.
An April 6, 1998, letter from Farren to Barb Vlahopoulos said Harkins owes nothing, that the lien is invalid and that under Arizona law prohibiting fraudulent liens, Hog-Wash owes Harkins at least $6,000. Farren also questioned whether the Vlahopouloses are still entitled to the receivables since they sold Hog-Wash in 1997. (They say they retained the Harkins claim under the sale agreement.) In the letter, Farren accused them of extortion, saying the letter is a "formal demand" to stop the media campaign "to falsely accuse Harkins of shirking its responsibility for paying Hog-Wash's invalid claims."
Two months ago, Harkins made a settlement offer of $3,000 to Hog-Wash, even though Harkins maintains it is Jaska Construction that should pay the claim.
The Vlahopouloses rejected the offer in December, saying they wanted $7,000 plus attorney fees by December 26. "This should be a simple matter to settle. . . . All we want is to be paid for the services we provided," they said in a letter to Harkins.
They never got an answer. So, just after Christmas, Barb Vlahopoulos began sending out e-mails and letters to the media and others.
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Meanwhile, Harkins is working on new projects -- a $9.3 million complex in Prescott Valley and a $16.5 million megaplex in Fresno, California. There's no indication that the Flagstaff dispute has affected those projects.
Farren says the company would like to settle the matter with the Vlahopouloses. The day after being contacted by New Times, he sent Tony Vlahopoulos a fax saying he was willing to discuss the issue with him.
"We hope to resolve this real soon," he says.
Contact Laura Laughlin at her online address: firstname.lastname@example.org