By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
A crudely lettered, hot-pink sign designates "Foods Plus, a Division of Consumer Action Inc." outside Hart's rented office on North 16th Street. Inside, family photos line the walls. His stepsons stare fiercely from their posed Little League pictures. A photo of his newborn is prominently featured on a bookshelf.
Hart sees himself as an entrepreneur who's had some tough luck in the past few years. His gaze is direct, and his voice never wavers. He seems wholly believable as he talks about his hard-luck businesses. Debts, legal troubles and bankruptcies are not foreign to risk-taking visionaries like himself, he explains.
Tanya Becker, according to Hart, is just the latest of his undeserved troubles. Hart says he hasn't done anything wrong; if anything, he's the injured party.
"We certainly have suffered more than she has in this situation," Hart insists.
When Becker sued to evict Hart, he made counterclaims, delaying the proceedings for weeks. He also provided the judge with a photocopy of the front side of checks to prove that he had attempted to pay Becker. However, Becker claims she never saw any checks, and Hart's subpoenaed bank records show he lacked the funds to cover the rent check. And he was unable to produce the endorsed checks at a court hearing.
In fact, records show he had no business living in such a fine home. Hart's bankruptcy filings indicate that in past three years, he has never earned more than $26,000.
On December 3, 1993, Becker won a judgment to have Hart evicted from her home. But on the day the eviction was to take effect, Hart declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy to reorganize his finances, forestalling his ouster. Less than a year earlier, on December 31, 1992, he had declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy to liquidate his debts, wiping out more than $135,000 in debt.
"It's okay if people want to claim I made some bad business decisions. Okay. I'll admit to that," Hart says during an interview at his office. "It's okay if Tanya Becker wants to think I'm giving her a hard time, because I am. Because I think she jerked my chain from day one, and I can document all of it, because she tried to sell that house the day after I bought it from her.
"So, yeah, I could be Mr. Nice Guy and just move out tomorrow, but the court says I don't have to. And if she wouldn't have been such a bitch about this, I would have. At this point, she deserves everything she gets as far as I'm concerned."
Hart readily admits that he owes Becker rent money and says he will pay it. "She's not losing any money on this at all. We owe her that money one way or another, and we're making payments to the trustee on what we owe her from before," Hart says.
The question is, when will she get paid? In his most recent bankruptcy filing--the Chapter 13 case--Hart proposed a plan under which he would repay Becker with $87.70 monthly installments over the next three years. That's not a bad rate for a home that would normally rent for more than $1,000 per month.
Hart is unpenitent about any personal obligations.
"Unfortunately for Tanya Becker, part of Chapter 13 is she can't evict us. That's not fraud; that's federal bankruptcy law. The problem with Tanya and the reason why she is going to be hit with a defamation suit is that she keeps saying all these actions we're doing are illegal. Well, they're not. It's not illegal to file bankruptcy. You know I did not make the bankruptcy law that says she cannot now evict me. The government makes the rules."
Days after speaking with a New Times reporter at his office, Hart moved out of the office and had his business telephone disconnected.
@body:Steve Hart says he moved to Phoenix in August 1992 for the weather, but it was more than the climate that drove him from Salem, Oregon.
For starters, the Oregon attorney general was investigating Hart's business, Network Management Systems, for fraud.
Hart says state investigators got involved because he was not able to come up with payroll taxes for employees that he was switching from part-time to full-time status.
However, Jan Margosian, consumer information coordinator for the Oregon Department of Justice, says Hart ran a pyramid scheme that cost approximately 100 victims more than $22,500 combined.
Margosian says Hart ran ads in several Oregon newspapers, advertising marketing jobs starting at $2,000 per month. However, to qualify for the jobs, applicants had to pay a $250 fee up front. The employees were to recruit other people, who also paid the $250 fee, to build the business. But few of Hart's recruits ever got a paycheck.
Kathy Marrs got in on the ground floor of Network Management Systems. Marrs says Hart paid her about $1,000 for her work, but when her hours are taken into account, she lost thousands of dollars. The people she recruited and who worked under her lost even more, she says. Some had cars repossessed and one recruit was evicted from his residence while awaiting a paycheck from Hart.
Oregon authorities never filed criminal charges against Hart because they believed he was preparing to sign a civil agreement that required him to refund the training fees to his recruits and inform them that there was no money to pay salaries. He would also have been required to pay the attorney general $7,500 in legal fees and not conduct any other businesses in Oregon without notifying the state justice department.