Kidney Stones

A fundraising event for a kidney transplant ended up feeling like a kidney punch to its organizers. On March 23, Regas Christou, owner of The Church nightclub, at 1160 Lincoln Street, held a benefit for one of his former employees who needs money for a new kidney. The event and celebrity auction benefiting bartender Arnold Vigil drew about 600 people and raised almost $35,000, according to Christou. But when Vigil called the following day demanding the donated funds, things got ugly. Christou refused to turn over the money to Vigil, who wasted no time convincing a judge to slap a restraining order on the benefit's proceeds.

"The fundraiser was an incredible success," says Vigil's lawyer Rick Kornfeld, "but Regas wouldn't give up the money. Legally he's got no right to withhold that money, and he's got no right to dictate the conditions of how that money will be handled. And the fact that he's actively avoiding being served with our restraining order is incriminating as well. We've had a former U.S. marshal trying to serve him for days."

The money sits in a special BankOne account set up by Christou (a bank official confirms this). Christou says the only reason he's holding on to the money is that he wants to make sure it gets spent on a kidney transplant and nothing else. He says things got ugly when he insisted that Vigil have a co-signer to make sure that payments from the fund went only to medical purposes.

Christou says his suspicions were aroused when he found out that even though the 31-year-old Vigil undergoes dialysis three times a week, he isn't on any kidney-transplant waiting lists, a fact that Vigil's attorney confirms.

"He's in the process of evaluation," says Kornfeld. "You're only on the list when conditions deteriorate. The kidneys have failed. Without the dialysis, he'd be dead. He doesn't look sick."

But now, others are sick.
"My employees and I are blown away by all this," says Christou, "and it's my job to make damn sure that this works out right. This money isn't for Arnold, it's for his kidney."

But Vigil says that what happens to the money isn't that simple. "The money might be sitting around for a long time," he says. "I don't know when I'll use it. And that's why I wanted to have my father co-sign on the account instead of Regas's guy. Look, I have four family members waiting for transplants right now, and if I died and couldn't use the money, I'd want it to go to them."

Adds Vigil, "The bottom line here is trust. I don't know how Regas can trust me with his money behind the bar for four years and then he can't trust me with this."

Those involved in the fundraiser say the personal acrimony that has sprung up between Christou and Vigil is the real tragedy. Bartender Ron Miller has worked at The Church for over a year and counts both Christou and Vigil as close friends.

"It's amazing how fast this thing has deteriorated," says Miller. "I feel sorry for both of them. Everybody's intention was to get a kidney for Arnold, so to see their friendship crumble as a result is devastating.

"I understand both their points of view. Arnold came in the day after the event and asked for his money so he could put it in his own account. But I understand that from Regas's point of view, you don't just hand over a bag of money, because there's all kinds of accounting that needs to be taken care of, and Regas wanted to make sure that these donations were going to be used in the right way. I can see how it could be easy for a guy with no cash like Arnold to look at $35,000 or so and say to themselves that maybe taking out a thousand here or there might not hurt. But it made Arnold mad that Regas insisted on having a co-signer for the money, and I think he panicked a little bit. Getting an attorney right off the bat wasn't a good idea after so many people donated their time and effort. That hurt some feelings."

And it could hurt both parties financially as well. Vigil's attorney says that if his client wins his case in Denver District Court (a hearing is scheduled for Thursday, April 16), he'll seek to recover not only all the proceeds from the benefit, but also reimbursement of their legal costs. "It's expensive to have our guy chase Christou around town," says Kornfeld. "But we also believe that there was more money than the $35,000 that they say they have. We'd like to be gaining interest on that money right now. It doesn't do us any good if those checks are sitting in a desk drawer somewhere."

Whatever the grand total may be, that sum is diminishing. Stephen Cox, a Church employee who handled the fundraiser's accounting, says that he's already received a few calls from donors who say that they've stopped payment on their checks because of the conflict. Another drain is that the charity event never formally received nonprofit status from the IRS. This means that in all likelihood a big chunk of the money will go straight to Uncle Sam; Kornfeld insists that he'll try to gain charitable status retroactively if Vigil gets the money.

As for why Vigil didn't take care of the nonprofit status beforehand, Kornfeld says he's not entirely sure. "The wheels got put in motion pretty fast," he says. "This whole thing was thrown together in a couple of weeks, and we all know that the government can't move that quickly."

The conflict leaves Christou shaking his head. "I used to love this kid," he says. "Hell, I took him to Phoenix a month ago to play golf. I'm just blown away that he'd think I'd steal from him. I don't care about the fucking money. All I expect him to do is to say thanks to all the employees and donors who put their time into this thing and use the money in the right way. This guy who's got a lawyer after me is a different human being than the guy we held the benefit for."

A big part of the problem, Christou admits, stems from his inexperience planning for these types of charitable events. He says the Vigil fundraiser was a first for him.

"Arnold didn't work it all out," says Christou. "I asked him to go through the National Kidney Foundation and to get his nonprofit status form from the IRS. Arnold said it was 'in the mail' and went on vacation. Hey, I've never tried to set up shit like this, so I'll admit that I'm not professional enough to ask all the right questions beforehand."

Even experts agree that the process of setting up a nonprofit entity to handle donations can be tricky. However, Belinda Cruz of the National Kidney Foundation says going through her organization probably wouldn't have helped Vigil much.

"We get approached all the time for fundraising," says Cruz. "The theory is that they can go through us, and we'll give the money back to them directly. Well, unfortunately, we can't do that, because the funds that come in to us go toward all transplants nationwide. If we can't come up with anything else that will work, we usually suggest they go through a church."

In this case, The Church is a nightclub. Christou and Vigil might have had better luck working a deal with the Organ Transplant Fund, based in Memphis, Tennessee. That nonprofit organization does the bookkeeping for transplant fundraisers across the country. "We don't pay patients," says public relations coordinator Janice Hill. "We pay the health provider directly. Or if the patients have to travel, we can pay for mileage reimbursement. But the costs must be related, and before we even agree to sign up a patient we have to have documentation from their doctor. It's a very detailed, step-by-step process.

"It's hard to separate the legitimate from the non-legitimate cases. The bottom line is that a lot depends upon how well you know the person in need of a transplant and if you trust them. If you don't, there's real reason to be squeamish."

Vigil, meanwhile, says that, while the flap over the fundraiser has upset him, he ultimately has more important things to worry about. "When you're faced with a life-threatening illness, you can face anything," he says. "So all this stuff that's going on is nothing compared to the time I spend three days a week in a dialysis chair.