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 Herald story 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."
It must be noted also that West is an extremely shrewd and successful businessman. Otherwise, he could not have earned enough money to owe the IRS hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public records show that two months after the 2002 story, West was hit with a $528,848.51 federal tax lien. Another lien for $916,575.57 had been filed in 1996. West's accountant, Giovanni Incardona, wrote that those liens "were reduced by approximately $1 Million Dollars in 2004" in a statement faxed to New Times. "Negotiations are underway to eliminate the balance of the obligations," Incardona added. Indeed, a document filed with Broward County in May indicates that the 1996 lien has been "released."
West has operated many businesses. Right now, his company blasts faxes to companies, hyping "cost-reduction programs" and marketing help in selling smaller companies to large companies. His letterhead lists offices in New York, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Beverly Hills, Ottawa, and Toronto. West's companies have even faxed such solicitations to the New Times paper in Phoenix no fewer than ten times since the 2002 profile ran, an apparent violation of Section 227, United States Code, Title 47, which prohibits junk faxes. West wrote in a faxed statement that New Times had voluntarily provided its fax number in a survey.
For a taste of the operation, check out his website, mergersandmoney.com. West claims in a faxed statement to be "in contract for in excess of $150 million dollars in sales this year and that our client base is currently valued at several billions of dollars." He didn't answer the question put to him: "How many deals have you closed in the last year?" nor would he name any clients, citing "letters of confidentiality."
One who did dance with West recently was David Michaels, president of Lexington International LLC. Court records show that in April 2003, West Direct Marketing Inc. settled with the Boca Raton-based company for $5,000 after an arbitrator ruled that West's company hadn't arranged advertising, as promised, for the manufacturer of the Hairmax Laser Comb. After the arbitrator ruled, West claimed in a petition seeking protection from a Broward County Court that Michaels "acosted [sic] petitioner + hung from his car door threatening to destroy petitioner." Reached at his office, Michaels says that in trying to collect more than $12,000 from West, he did stand in the way of West's car door as the Pompano businessman tried to close it but didn't threaten West. Part of the settlement stipulated that West would withdraw his petition. "I have never dealt with a businessman with such a history," said Michaels, who is prohibited by the settlement from disparaging West.
For Wallace, departure from West's fiefdom was only the beginning. The day she was fired, she says, she filed for unemployment. After Wallace was awarded benefits, West appealed. In tapes of the hearing obtained from the state's Unemployment Appeals Commission, the Pompano businessman is heard telling the referee that he fired Wallace because she threatened to sue if she was not paid for a sick day. He says also that Wallace surfed the Internet for personal reasons -- contrary to company policy -- and at one point was "on some form of a cult site" searching for ways to protect herself from "an evil spirit" that was stalking her.
Wallace acknowledges that she surfed the web. But she maintains today that she never felt she was being stalked by a spirit, evil or otherwise, and that her mention of legal consultation was hardly a threat to sue. Also, the policy manual he provided at the hearing was dated six weeks after Wallace was fired.
West also enlisted employees Marlene Berk, Greg Zide, and Corey Popwell to testify and submit affidavits on his behalf.
The only one New Times could obtain from state records, which strangely is marked with a 1998 copyright from someone named Ann Poe, states, in stilted English, "Ms Wallace, however she exudes potentially erratic behavior that me be deemed unstable."
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The unemployment appeals referee believed West. "The claimant advised the employer that if she was not paid, she would disrupt the company's operations and sue the company," the referee wrote in her decision. Two weeks ago, New Times received faxed affidavits from West and three of his employees stating, variously, that Wallace had said that "she would kill herself if she lost her job" and that "she was leaving the office voluntarily and was looking for another job."
Finally, though Wallace applied for workers' compensation insurance, state records show that at the time she was fired, West Acquisitions & Investments Group Inc. didn't carry any. West wrote in a faxed statement that "an outside consultant" responsible for purchasing the insurance hadn't.
With West's knowledge, Wallace had been looking for work occasionally before her firing, she contends and he confirms in the hearing tapes. Last week, she finally landed a new job in Boca Raton as an office manager. Yet her ire abides. "The man made me choose between my life and my job that day," she says, "and I got fired for it." On July 26, Wallace's attorney, Nathaniel Green, filed a civil complaint against West Acquisitions & Investments Group seeking at least $15,000 for retaliatory discharge and negligence because of the fumes. West's response cites his successful appeal to the Agency for Workforce Innovation as proof that Wallace was dismissed for cause. He also names Green in the suit and asks that the judge remove the attorney from the case because he "allowed a copy of [the] lawsuit to be circulated... among Defendant's employees."
Green is unfazed. "It's not our policy to file frivolous claims," he says. He and Wallace could simply be following directive number eight in West's own policy manual: "Do Not Get Pushed Around."