By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
For a glimpse into the mind of Pompano Beach businessman and admitted felon Steven West, flip through his company policy manual, a document positively Dilbertian in its detachment from usual human comportment. Among its edicts: "If I am talking to someone else do not interrupt me in the middle of my sentence." "You have to work on your memory." "No Temper Tantrums." "There is no losing things." And this is critical: "No Complaining."
Mindy Wallace apparently botched that last one. She worked for West Acquisitions & Investments Group from spring 2003 to this past May 14. A 42-year-old single mother with long black hair and a rapid cadence, Wallace fell ill the day before she left the company, when the office filled with fumes from work being done on the roof. "I felt like I was being doused with diesel fuel," she recalls over an English muffin at Lester's Diner in Pompano Beach.
The fumes triggered coughing fits, a migraine, and retching, she says. Someone called for help. "The fire department came out, they went through the entire building, checked every room in the building," says Skip Bertke, the building manager. "They said there was no dangerous situation in the building. They did say some people are more sensitive to it than others."
Wallace and co-worker Margie Rivera fell into that latter category. Paramedics transported them to the emergency room at Imperial Point Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. On the way, Wallace says, her right foot went numb. "I thought I was having a stroke," she says. It's a reasonable fear for her: She has known since 2001 that she has a brain aneurysm, which stress can exacerbate. (Reached on her cell phone, Rivera declined comment.)
At the hospital, emergency room doctor Michael Estep diagnosed Wallace with "chemical exposure" and recommended she take two days off work, hospital documents show.
When she returned to the office with the doctor's note, she says, West was apoplectic that she had left without telling him. Later that night, he left a message that Wallace saved on her answering machine. In his distinctive, fretful voice, West said that he had called the hospital and had become convinced that she dictated the diagnosis. She says she replied with a voice message: "I told him I was going to seek legal counsel because my rights as a patient were violated."
Shortly after 6 o'clock the next morning, West left Wallace a message telling her to come in the next week to pick up her last paycheck. He didn't give a reason.
West declined to speak to New Times, which profiled him in an August 29, 2002, article called "Wild, Wild West." It traced his business path from hostile department-store takeovers in the late '70s to a $14 million, ersatz Who's Who directory scam in the late '80s for which he later pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion. He was sentenced to six months of house arrest and three years of probation. The story also described his history as an author of five books and garnered comment from disgruntled clients and ex-employees who felt West had taken them for a ride.
New Times wasn't the first publication to scrutinize West. A 1996 front-page Miami Heraldstory stated that "in interviews with 34 suppliers, customers, and former employees, West is consistently described as a con man extraordinaire." A subsequent Herald editorial on West declared that "someone should check on the continued business practices of convicted scamsters who enjoy the leniency of the courts." The late Murray Kempton, poet laureate of newspaper columnists, once compared West to Attila the Hun.
He has the knives out again. Last month, when a New Times reporter and a photographer visited his office building, a receptionist said West was at a funeral. Then, within a couple of hours, there came a voice mail: "This is Steven West," a voice said. "Please do not come back to our office. We chose not to sue the New Times last time. We were busy. I'm not busy now. I'd be very happy to sue the New Times. Don't embarrass yourself and come back tomorrow. Thank you very much. I don't mean to be rude. Bye-bye."
A couple of hours later, with no further contact, West's office announced via fax that "based upon your inquiry we find it is best to now file a lawsuit against New Times that was postponed over a year ago." Sure enough, West filed. He wants $30 million. He names not only four New Times employees individually, misspelling three names, but also Wallace.
In his suit, which he launched without resorting to the luxury of an actual lawyer, West claims, among other things, that the 2002 story contained inaccuracies and "willfully omit[ted] positive information and willfully ignore[d] positive interviews." He says, for instance, that he graduated from the esteemed Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania; New Times couldn't confirm that assertion in 2002, but a Penn records keeper did verify last week that West earned a B.S. in economics in 1962. Otherwise, New Times stands by the 2002 article.
It must also be said that among the seven former employees interviewed for this story, three had good things to say about West. "I didn't have a problem with him," says David Ayala of Pompano Beach, who left West's world early this year. "Any problems that came up, he tried to work it out the best way possible."