Cowboys BBQ and Country Club, a restaurant with a short and stormy run on Helena’s west side early this year, operated only a few weeks before some employees reported that they weren’t getting paid.
Last week, a Lewis and Clark County district judge agreed with the workers, signing default orders requested by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, which determined that 16 employees — cooks, cleaners, carpenters and others — are owed about $19,211 in unpaid wages, plus an additional $11,000 in penalties for late payment of the wages,
That’s in addition to about $2,000 in fines the restaurant owes the department.
The unpaid wages ranged from $50 for one worker to $5,895 for another, who claimed he had help re-model the facility.
The restaurant was open about a month in early 2012, but conflicts quickly arose between its apparent owner, Jimmie Russell, and staff.
An altercation between Russell and a cook led to disorderly conduct citations. Later, Russell was ar-rested on an Idaho warrant.
One of the employees took over the restaurant, claiming someone had bought out Russell’s interest.
A few days later, the restaurant closed for good, with the landlord of the Euclid Avenue building post-ing a notice that the tenants had not paid their rent.
It’s not clear whether any of the employees will ever recover their wages. At least one claim against the restaurant — from Power Townsend for more than $5,000 for picnic tables returned in potentially unsellable condition — remains open in District Court.
The business was registered under the name of Jimmie Russell’s son, Michael A. Russell, but he said in February he was working to get his name off all paperwork associated with the operation. He claimed that his father used his name to seek a cabaret license because he could not get one himself, and had cheated him out of $40,000.
The elder Russell denied that he had cheated his son or anyone else. No one responded to a message left Tuesday with a phone number he had in February.
The restaurant flew a Texas flag, but court documents link the restaurateurs to Macon, Ga.
Most of the employees who filed wage claims with the state said they were paid nothing at all. The Russells did not respond to the Department of Labor’s invitations to contest the claims, ultimately leading to the default order.
Dave Gallik, a Helena lawyer who represented the owners, told the state that the entity named by the employees, Cowboy’s Barbeque and Country Club LLC, existed solely to obtain a cabaret license and did not operate the restaurant or have employees. But state investigators found otherwise, saying in court documents that the LLC “was more actively involved in the operation of the business than they admit-ted to their attorney.”