A Real Wheeler-Dealer

He outfoxed car dealers and got his employees to pay him. Meet Howard Patterson, the man who sells cars that don't exist.

Judah Feldman was dying a slow and painful death. He was only 56 years old, but he looked 80. His beard was gray and stringy, his sunken eyes vacant. More than a decade earlier, he'd battled cancer, which forced doctors to remove one of his kidneys. Now diabetes caused his other kidney to fail. As Judah lay in a twin bed in his son Seth's Coral Springs home, pain coursed through his withered body. His only relief: self-administered morphine.

Early one afternoon Judah asked his home-care nurse just how much morphine it would take to end his suffering permanently. The nurse confiscated the morphine and handed it over to Seth Feldman. Seth and his father were especially close -- friends and also business partners in Quality Appliances, a company that exported used air conditioner and refrigerator parts overseas. But for the past couple of years, a strengthened worldwide economy had diminished the demand for used appliances, and the company, like Judah, was in bad shape. As his father became increasingly ill, Seth struggled to run the business on his own.

Seth's wife, Beth, worked, too, in the sales department of Keystone Tapes, a wholesale packaging store in Davie. The Feldmans needed two incomes to pay the bills and take care of their eight-year-old daughter, Erin Faith. But because Beth's salary was low and Seth's business was failing, they were barely scraping by.

Beth, however, had a plan that she believed would save the family from debt and enable Seth to return to school and get an engineering degree. In January 1997, she accepted a job at a potentially lucrative yet risky new venture called Eurasia Motor Corporation. Eurasia's business plan was to import a line of inexpensive cars from Romania and sell the franchise rights to automobile dealerships nationwide. At a salary of $1000 a week, Beth would serve as the company's director of corporate finance.

It wasn't just the money that attracted Beth to the job. Her new boss, CEO Howard Patterson, convinced her she was getting in on the ground floor of what would become a multimillion-dollar company. He claimed that wealthy investors were prepared to support Eurasia. He promised her future stock options and profit sharing. And when Judah Feldman died on February 7, 1997 -- a day after he'd suggested he would take his own life -- Patterson became the Feldmans' only hope. Quality Appliances soon dissolved, Seth began taking antidepressants, and Beth went to work at a high-paying job with a promising future.

Twenty-one months later, Eurasia is no longer the savior it once pretended to be. In September the New York Times reported that at least nine car dealerships nationwide, including two in South Florida, have either sued Eurasia or filed formal complaints in efforts to retrieve their franchise fees, which range from $25,000 to $69,000 each. Over the last year and a half, Eurasia has moved from Fort Lauderdale to Corpus Christi, Texas, and back again, changing the make of the car it's supposed to import three times in the process. But the company has yet to deliver a single car.

And it probably never will. Patterson claims that Eurasia signed contracts with five foreign companies to build the cars, but the companies deny having any relationship with Eurasia. Insisting that he has the contracts, Patterson offered, on two separate occasions, to show them to New Times. But when it came time to set up the appointments, Patterson's secretary claimed he was not in Eurasia's Fort Lauderdale office, and he did not return the calls.

One reason for Patterson's reticence may be that the State of Florida no longer recognizes Eurasia as a legal corporation. On October 16 the state revoked Eurasia's corporate-entity status after the company failed to file an annual report. Nonetheless Eurasia is still up and running, although it's hard to know for how long. Last week a Eurasia vice president announced Howard Patterson was "stepping away from his position" as CEO. She refused to go into detail but said the company's investors -- whom she refused to name -- wanted someone else "to work through the current issues and move us on to the next level."

"That's the same thing he says every time," Seth Feldman sneers after hearing the latest news. "Every time the shit gets stinky, Howard pretends he's bringing new people in."

Feldman should know. Nine of Patterson's former employees, including the Feldmans, claim in interviews and court testimony that Eurasia owes them more than $200,000. Even as franchise fees poured in, they say, Patterson bounced paychecks, used employee credit cards without authorization, and dipped into company funds to buy himself jewelry, boats, cars, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The Feldmans claim that, between back pay and money they shelled out for business expenses, Eurasia owes them alone $25,000.

"Everyone that has come in contact with Howard Patterson has been hurt -- everybody," says Cecil Cain, another former Eurasia employee. "There's not a person that walked away from it. You've either been hurt financially or emotionally. A couple of marriages have been hurt. Everyone he's come in contact with has been damaged from it."

Just how Patterson did the alleged damage is not easy to assess. He refuses to share basic information about his background, and he will not explain, beyond offering a denial, why so many of his associates claim he owes them money. But a look at Eurasia's practices over the past 21 months reveals that Patterson specialized in making promises he could not keep. And, as Beth Feldman knows, Patterson's charm and constant assurances allowed him to proceed with an operation that, at least on the surface, looks all too familiar.

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