Wild, Wild West
On a steamy Manhattan day in August 1977, a 36-year-old business wunderkind arrived at the liquidation auction of Robert Hall clothing stores defiantly mod in his lemon-yellow suit and open-necked, black shirt. At his side was a bodyguard whose wrist was chained to a briefcase. As onlookers gawked, Steven West told anyone who would listen that the case contained $2 million in cash and that he intended to buy not one outlet but the whole chain. After ten minutes, West's bid had reached $3.5 million -- "too much money for a bunch of stores that were stinkers" one bystander remarked -- and the erratic newcomer had captured national attention. Only later would the big spender admit that the briefcase contained mostly loose pieces of paper that were covered by several thousand --not million -- dollars in cash.
At the time of the Robert Hall auction, West was fresh from publishing his latest book, How to Live Like a Millionaire on an Ordinary Income, and intent on following his own advice. The volume came complete with a collection of dummy letterheads and business cards that West termed a "Millionaire Image Building Kit." The book, a do-it-yourself text for corner-cutters, offered advice on how to get cars, office space, and various services for free. "After you have played the part [of a tycoon] for a while, you will actually become the part you're playing," reads page 21. "You will, by that time, have developed an aura of power and success.... People will respond to you as though they were hypnotized and, to a certain degree, they will be."
But by fall 1977, West's world began to splinter. An October 28, front-page story in the Wall Street Journal described his antics at the auction under the headline "Illusionist, Merchant, and Slow Payer of Bills." In that article, the Journal noted, "Indeed, depending on whom you talk to, Steven West is a budding business genius, super-promoter, enlightened author and executive. Or he is a hopeless dreamer whose company has been sued by at least eight suppliers for failure to pay its bills.... One thing at least is clear. Mr. West's recent notoriety isn't coincidental, nor will it be short-lived if he has anything to do with it.... Steven West is a master illusionist, and proud of it."
Fast-forward 25 years. Visit the corporate headquarters of West Worldwide Industries, the West Group, and other Steven West ventures and you have to wonder whether the illusionist followed his own advice. He operates behind the door of executive suite 319, in an anonymous building at 1000 W. McNab Rd., just off I-95 in Pompano Beach. When the door to the office swings open, it nearly hits Rachel, a perky girl with springy blond hair. There is no reception area; rather, the cramped room holds four women, and all except Rachel are busy reading telemarketing scripts off computer monitors and into telephone headsets. They obviously aren't accustomed to visitors.
Rachel jumps up and asks if she can help. When a request is made to see West, she says she'll check with him. But before she has a chance, he emerges from an adjoining room. Somewhat handsome in pictures from the Robert Hall days, West now looks rundown. His approximately five-foot, nine-inch frame is sagging and pear-shaped, as if his pectoral muscles got tired and decided to rest around his waist. His paunch is nearly camouflaged by an attractive black suit, crisp white shirt, and conservative tie. He looks something like a used-car dealer in an Anne Rice novel might -- an effect accentuated by his meticulous if unusual coif. Ungodly amounts of hair gel hold four separate spiky points of blue-black hair tight to his forehead, as if a giant eyelash has been inverted and glued to his skull.
As quickly as he materializes, West disappears into his office. Rachel follows him only to return a few seconds later to say, apologetically, that West is on a teleconference and can't be bothered. However, he chooses that exact moment to emerge and linger a few feet behind her while she asks the reason for the visit. Told that New Times is preparing a story about West, Rachel's face lights up and she seems genuinely pleased. Her boss's expression is markedly different. Rachel says that she's sure he would love to talk but that his day is divided into 15-minute segments and that day's slots are full. She suggests calling to make an appointment. West says nothing and glances around before returning to his office.
West's response might be explained by his résumé for the past quarter century. It includes one federal fraud conviction and more than $1 million in federal tax liens. Though once a rising star who wrote five books and bought a chain of department stores before turning 40, he is now recently divorced from his partner in crime and relegated to hawking telemarketing services from a two-room suite in Pompano Beach. At age 61, West's net worth is a half million dollars less than he claimed to hold in his briefcase when he was 36.
His slow descent provides insight into South Florida, an area teeming with charlatans. Here in the subtropics, hustlers hide under the canopies of palm and acacia, letting paradise disguise their intentions. Although West has been convicted only once, more than 20 people interviewed by New Times claim that he's acted unethically; 12 say he should be brought up on charges. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against him and his companies in Broward Circuit Court, and several are pending. Two disgruntled former employees describe a tangled financial web spun by West to lure unsuspecting business owners into his plans. The illusions of wealth and profit he once proferred have unraveled, revealing little more than desperation.
There's not much public information available about West's life before he reached middle age. Born Steven Samuel Watstein on August 9, 1941, West was raised in a working-class Jewish family. He describes his early years thusly in the Millionaire book: "If ever there was a loser with almost everything in the world against success, I was the one. First of all, let's take the matter of being born on the wrong side of the tracks -- that's bad enough, but to be born on the wrong side of the tracks -- be poor -- and be unattractive -- well, that's a little too heavy for anyone."
It wasn't until he reached 18 years old and was -- he claims in his books -- a student at the University of Pennsylvania that his current persona began to take shape. At Penn, West contends, he dropped the Watstein name and earned a degree from the prestigious Wharton School of Business. But that story doesn't ring completely true. A representative in Wharton's student records office found no evidence of a Steven Watstein or a Steven West attending that school. Oh yes, the representative offered, Penn graduated a Steven West in 1991 with a degree in veterinary sciences. But there are no Wharton graduates with either name.
By 1977, West's life was in full swing. That year, he married Sherri Weinman, published five books, and bought two chains of department stores. The books: What Happens After Death? You Don't Have to Die to Find Out; How to Live to Be 100 and Enjoy It!; Mental Calisthenics; The Power and Pleasure of Sex; and the aforementioned How to Live Like a Millionaire on an Ordinary Income were all cowritten with Donald Tyburn-Lombard who, like West, doesn't seem to have written any commercially available books since. The publisher has apparently shut down, or at least, that's the theory of an Asian grocery-store operator in New York City who answers the last listed number for Aabbott McDonnell Winchester Publishers. A Google.com search also turns up no trace.
New Times was able to obtain copies of three of the books, How to Live Like a Millionaire on an Ordinary Income; How to Live to Be 100 and Enjoy It!; and What Happens After Death? You Don't Have to Die to Find Out through Amazon.com, which ranks them in sales, respectively, as 1,023,376; 2,218,279; and 1,783,943.
As their titles suggest, the works can generally be described as self-help. Each seems to be little more than a gathering of information readily available at the time, reorganized, and written simply, with many grammatical errors. Dashes of 1970s pop wisdom appear throughout. That's no surprise considering that West claims he's completed graduate programs in psychology, metaphysics, and scientology at the College of Divine Metaphysics and at the Silva Mind Control Institute -- as well as at "other leading human potential groups and institutes." The books boast chapters devoted to meditation, the health benefits of astrology, and a lengthy section touting the merits (and methods) of regularly self-administering enemas. In post-publication interviews, he called himself "the Jack LaLanne of the mental spa business." Of the five volumes, only the Millionaire book contains sections that suggest the ingenuity, chutzpah, and familiarity with legal gray areas that West seems to have relied upon in his business career.
In one chapter of the Millionaire book, West explains that the value of a company can be legally inflated in financial statements by assigning an arbitrary fair-market value to the individual shares of stock and then explaining that arbitrary assignment in the footnotes. "[W]ho is to say that your shares are not worth 50 cents each?" West asks in the book. It's a business philosophy that John Palumbo, a construction cost estimator employed by West in 2001, likens to a recent accounting scandal. "West was cooking the books to raise capital," Palumbo says. "On a much smaller scale, Steve West was doing exactly the same thing that WorldCom is being investigated for."
In that tome, West also tells readers that "the wealthy and successful men and women of this world wear beautiful clothes; ride in expensive cars... eat in the best restaurants where they are treated with the same deference shown to royalty. They also have magnificent offices with beautiful secretaries as well as luxurious homes in which they entertain royally."
On October 31, 1977, three days after the page-one Journal story about the Robert Hall sale, West again made headlines in that newspaper -- this time because he purchased 25 percent of the common stock of Federal's, a department-store chain concentrated in Detroit. The hostile takeover spurred Federal's board of directors to attempt to oust him; when they sued, West locked himself in his office at Federal's for four hours. Lawyers for the store informed the would-be tycoon that a judge had ordered him to leave.
But after West triumphed in court in March 1978, he gained control of Federal's. Later in 1978, several Federal's stores burned, according to a report published later in Newsday. West apparently denied involvement and suggested that he take a lie-detector test to show that neither he nor company officers were involved, the newspaper reported. There's no indication of whether the test was taken, but he was not charged in the case. By 1980, Federal's dissolved for failure to file reports and pay fees. It must have seemed to West then that business couldn't get worse. But it did.
In 1988, West's focus apparently shifted from legitimate buyouts to outright scamming. Along with his wife, Sherri, he sent out hundreds of letters inviting people to pay as much as $1000 to be included in a who's who directory. For this fee, respondents were told they'd receive a listing with a lengthy write-up and a color photo as well as a copy of the book and a plaque to hang on their office wall.
But some of the people who paid the fee were not pleased with the product. Instead of a book, they claimed, the Wests delivered a cheaply bound collection of photocopied pages. The write-ups were brief and riddled with errors, the photos grainy, black and white, and the size of postage stamps. Moreover, many of the victims -- 50 of whom were FBI agents -- never received a copy of the directory, and no one got a wall plaque. The Wests, however, grossed more than $14 million for their efforts. In 1992, federal agents seized the who's who records and brought charges of fraud and tax evasion against Steven and Sherri West.
On January 5, 1988, while federal investigators gathered evidence to use against the Wests, the 20,000-square-foot house they owned in the tony Long Island community of Mill Neck was destroyed by another fire. County investigators called it arson and named the Wests and a long list of others as potential suspects, but according to the New York Times, no one was ever charged.
The $1.3 million the Wests received from an insurance policy on the house was seized by the federal government on grounds that it had been paid for with tainted who's who dollars. The Times published three articles about the Wests and their house, the first in April 1990 and the last in March 1993, after Steven and Sherri West pleaded guilty to engineering the who's who scheme.
Both Wests accepted plea agreements: Sherri pleaded guilty to tax evasion and Steven to fraud and tax evasion. Steven also admitted evading $665,515.51 in income tax and $92,700 in payroll tax for 1986 alone and acknowledged that he opened bank accounts in his son's name to keep the funds from being detected. When detailing the who's who operation, Steven West confessed that he had made up impressive-sounding names, like "Thornton Rockefeller" and "Harlan Carnegie" to list as members of the who's who "selection committee" to deceive potential customers.
Steven accepted most of the responsibility and was sentenced to six months' house arrest, three years' probation, and a $50,000 fine. Sherri West received one year probation. Yet Leon LaPoint, a former business associate of West's, reports that within weeks, the illusionist was back trying to crack deals. This time, though, there was a fashionable twist. West started wearing cowboy boots with his expensive suits to hide a tracking anklet.
After pleading guilty, the Wests became full-time residents in South Florida. By 1996, they were living in a $350,000 Weston Hills Country Club home, and a chauffeur drove Steven West around in a leased Jaguar. West promoted himself as an Internet expert, designing Websites for tech-hungry companies willing to pay far above the market norm, the Miami Herald reported. He had also developed a side business traveling the country hosting Internet marketing seminars, for which attendees paid $99 a head.
As bills and taxes went unpaid, West's customers began alleging shoddy and incomplete performance. His activities caught the attention of Miami Herald reporter Jim McNair. McNair exhumed West's past, writing three articles for the Herald and spurring an August 17, 1996, editorial that questioned why a man with West's history was allowed to proceed unchecked by local authorities. "If a term of probation is to have meaning, someone should check on the continued business practices of convicted scamsters who enjoy the leniency of the courts," it reads.
Anthony Egitto is a heavyset man with dark-brown hair, piercing green eyes, a pronounced New Jersey accent, and a great affection for cats, motorcycles, and medieval history. He speaks of right and wrong as absolutes and maintains a Website (www.sirlancelot.com) where good always triumphs over evil, and he, Tony Egitto, is Sir Lancelot, the knight.
Egitto, who worked as controller of West Worldwide for five weeks in 2001, is quick to accuse his former boss. After just one week on the job, Egitto contends, he had doubts about West's operation. But he stayed for four more weeks to gather records and documents that he hoped would help prosecutors catch his boss. He collected all the papers in a black, three-ring binder with dividers and multicolored tabs. Recently, sitting at the kitchen table of his Pompano Beach apartment, he rifled through the three-inch-thick stack of documents.
"Dear Mr. Butterworth" begins a letter Egitto wrote to the Florida Attorney General on February 22, 2001. It refers to the Herald editorial about West and continues, "the 'slap on the wrist' that our government was so kind to grant this thief has allowed him to continue to hurt many businessmen and their families." A letter Egitto sent to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris the same day is almost identical.
In these missives, Egitto accuses West of forging documents, laundering money, and evading income taxes. "He washes money through various banks and corporations in order to live an extravagant lifestyle," Egitto's letters allege. "I have countless documents showing his forgeries, fraud, and income tax evasion. This man thinks he is 'untouchable' and 'above the law.' It seems obvious to many of us good citizens that West can just do whatever he pleases and continue to hurt many people and their families and get away with it. What does it take to get the authorities to act?"
Egitto didn't receive an answer to his question. Butterworth never responded. Harris replied February 28 to say that Egitto's letter had been forwarded to the Florida Department of Banking and Finance, which then sent the former West controller a letter March 7 saying he'd be better off contacting the IRS, FBI, or Broward Sheriff's Office. Egitto says that when he met with IRS, FBI, and BSO investigators, they seemed eager to pursue the matter. But as weeks passed and Egitto's calls to the three agencies went unreturned, he gave up the cause. Contacted by New Times, representatives from the three agencies would neither confirm nor deny that an investigation of West was ongoing.
Egitto still believes his black notebook holds information that could be useful in building a case against West. "He takes peoples' money and never delivers what they pay him for," his letters to Butterworth and Harris read. "I am aware of many witnesses willing to step forward to testify how West has 'ripped them off.'"
Indeed, more than 30 names are listed in Egitto's notebook, with phone numbers and brief descriptions. Many are business owners who, Egitto alleges, feel burned by West. Among those listed are Grant Golden, Dave McSherry, Chris Antonelli, and Leon LaPoint.
Golden is the second-generation owner of Nedlog, a 72-year-old manufacturer of frozen fruit-juice concentrate in Chicago. He claims he hired West to find a buyer for his company and paid him $5500. "He never did anything to sell my business," Golden claims. "I never saw anything for the money I gave him. I have no reservations about speaking out publicly against him. I want people to know what he is."
Until his company filed for bankruptcy in 2001, McSherry owned Michigan Products Inc. (MPI), a $12 million business that made and distributed educational materials. McSherry says he first hired West to find a buyer for MPI. Then, after West joined the company as a partner, McSherry alleges that the consultant stood by as the company slipped into bankruptcy. "They were going to shut off the lights, the power, and the water," McSherry recalls. "He kept all the money for himself, and we were spending all of our time just trying to stay afloat and keep the lights on."
Antonelli tells a similar tale. The owner of Antonelli Plating in Providence, Rhode Island, complains that working with West left him $200,000 in debt. "He wanted us to buy ten more plating companies legitimately," Antonelli says. "It would have worked too, but then he got greedy. He's a sly fox, a self-appointed dictator. He could sell a screen door to a submarine."
In New Jersey, LaPoint spent eight years building a $1 million-a-year limousine rental company, Car & Chauffeur. LaPoint first met with West in the early 1990s, just after West's fraud conviction. Nine years later, he says, West persuaded him to merge Car & Chauffeur with several other limousine companies. LaPoint believed West to be the CEO of a major international corporation, West Worldwide Industries. But eight months later, the illusion was shattered. "West Worldwide was really just Steve West working with one secretary," LaPoint says. "But he always flew first class everywhere. He always rode in limousines or chauffeured cars. He lived the high life all on the backs of other people."
LaPoint's Car & Chauffeur was rolled into a new company called Limousine Corporation of America (LCA), and LaPoint joined the board of directors. But in March 2001, West sued LaPoint and several other board members. West's claim: They blocked him from attending an LCA board meeting. Their claim: He's not an LCA director.
Greg DiLodovico, former owner of another limousine company folded into LCA, gave a deposition in the case. Under oath, DiLodovico said this: "In fact Watstein/West's modus operandi is to operate through the bogus companies to steal from honest businesses....Watstein/West then used LCA's accounts for his personal business, transferring money out of LCA's accounts to fund his other schemes."
DiLodovico's deposition is just one of the documents in Egitto's notebook. It also includes copies of West's correspondence with and notarized affidavits of LaPoint, Richard Weiss, and Bruce Seitz. Each of the three contend in writing that West signed their names without their knowledge or permission.
And there's a letter to Katherine Harris in the notebook penned the same day as Egitto's missive to the then-secretary of state. It's by Sandi Marchetti, who worked as West's administrative assistant for two years, quitting in February 2001. "Mr. West is one of those that has gone unpunished for his mistreatment of funds, corporations, and especially people," the letter reads. "He, of course, is still out there on the streets rubbing his dirty little hands together in anticipation of the next coffin he will fill with an innocent, desperate, business owner."
In her letter, Marchetti accuses West of forgery, misappropriation of funds, noncompliance with labor laws, and income-tax evasion. She provides no detail to back up these claims.
In a faxed letter to New Times, West questioned both Egitto's and Marchetti's credibility. He alleged that Egitto is "irrational, vindictive, [and] dangerous." He also questioned Marchetti, asserting that she has been irresponsible. Both, he wrote, have shown "lack of judgment, honor, and integrity."
Egitto's face reddens as he flips through the hundreds of loose-leaf pages, the tone of his voice changing as he explains the contents. "He preys on people when their companies are on rough times," Egitto says. "He invests a little money in the company, assumes the role of consultant, and then takes control of the company. That's how he plays them. He gets their money, and their money buys him power, and power buys him justice. And he knows it. If he's got your money, you've automatically lost."
On July 26, 2002, one day after New Times visited West's office, we received a fax from the Steven West-owned company, Telemarketing Industries. It reads: "Thank you for contacting us. Mr. West has a commitment with another publication which would prevent an interview at this time. We will be in contact with you in the future. Very truly yours, Barbara Hughes."
Hughes did not respond to three subsequent messages left by New Times, at least not by calling. On Monday, July 29, we received a second fax from Telemarketing Industries, this one signed by West and addressed to the publisher of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. It referred to a "malicious" article that New Times had allegedly faxed to West's office with the intent to "ridicule" and "embarrass" West and "demoralize" his employees. Problem is, we sent no article of any kind.
His letter went on to threaten, "If any form of adverse story is published on me, I will immediately bring an action in Florida Supreme Court against your publication and the reporter for malice." The letter was copied to Ira Rosenberg, an attorney with the New York law firm of Sills, Cummis, Radin, Tischman, Epstein & Gross. West did not respond to two subsequent calls from New Times to his office, or to one message left for him at the Wyndam Resort and Spa in Weston, the hotel where he resides. After we provided copies of the Egitto and Marchetti missives, as well as a Herald story about the entrepreneur, West responded by again threatening litigation and attacking his critics, citing "the legal risks of such a non-newsworthy article."
When contacted on July 30, Rosenberg, the lawyer to whom West's letters were copied, said he had no knowledge of the letters and had never received a copy. Furthermore, he said that he was not, nor had he ever been, Steven West's attorney. Rather, Rosenberg said he knew West only because the South Florida entrepreneur had referred two clients to him. Those referrals came after Rosenberg successfully defended a client against a lawsuit brought by West.
Marchetti, West's former administrative assistant, says threats like the faxed letters are typical behavior. She says she knows the lengths to which West will go when he feels cornered -- and her claims are detailed in the letter to Katherine Harris. In that letter, Marchetti claims that she quit her job in February 2001, confronted West, then ended up in the hospital. After telling West that she would not participate with him in actions she believed to be "frauds," Marchetti contends her boss locked the door to the office, blocked her from exiting, and tried to persuade her to stay.
"I told him I was afraid of him and that I intended to leave and for him to unlock the door," she writes. But West allegedly refused to let her pass. Marchetti claims that while trying to leave the office, she tripped and fell, badly hurting her back. "I couldn't even move, but Mr. West did nothing to help me. He just kept saying, 'I didn't do it.'"
After that incident, Marchetti says that both West and his son, Derek West, who declined comment for this story, called her and threatened her. She contends that Derek West told her that if she sued his father, he and his friends would come and get her. "He is such a charmer, you can't help but like him," Marchetti says of Steven West. "But he's the devil in disguise. He's a very greedy man who would screw over absolutely anyone."
It's a sentiment echoed by virtually every former business associate of West's contacted by New Times. "He pumps you up and intoxicates you with promises of money," Egitto says. "It's the game face he puts on. He goes into his salesman mode, and he becomes this different person. But when he's not in that mode, he's a depressed, desperate, angry man."
As of last week, the Telemarketing Doctor was in business and exhibiting no signs of slowing. Broward County records reveal that the IRS still has a $916,575.57 lien on West for unpaid taxes, and court records show he owes at least $32,000 in judgments issued locally. But as West lists in his July 10, 2002, divorce papers, he has no property to attach. The $350,000 Weston Hills house is owned by Sherri West's parents, who lease it to her; the cars are leased; and West's claimed personal net worth of $1.45 million is the aggregate value of his various businesses, which are difficult to value objectively. Still, per the divorce agreement, Steven West must pay Sherri $500,000 in alimony by the end of 2003 and $6000 each month in child support for their 14-year-old daughter.
Even in divorce, it seems, Steven West tried to do business. Sherri filed more than two years ago. Not long after that, in July 2000, Steven offered his wife $1.25 million to reconcile. She didn't accept. (Sherri West also declined comment.)
Those who claim they've been taken by West marvel that he continues to hustle. His resilience may be due to his choice of business associates. "The people he beats are regular people," Egitto says. "They're not mafia. They're not lowlifes. They're more hurt than they are angry. He took food out of their families' mouths."
It's been 25 years since Steven West set the business world abuzz with his bold attempts at entrepreneurship and 25 years since he penned five books telling readers how to have happy, wealthy, healthy, long, sex-filled lives. The cocky, confident Steven West has given way to a cautious man, saddled with huge amounts of debt. As Murray Kempton, among the greatest of American journalists, wrote for Newsday in 1992: The good fairy at the young Steven Wests cradle blessed him with a narrow but profound genius for catching the transient delusions of his time. His bad fairy then ruined his timing.
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